The Rubaiyat of Ronald Balfour

Until the advent of online ancestry records and newspaper archives, Ronald Balfour (hereafter RB) was something of a mystery man. Brigid Peppin and Lucy Micklethwaite, in their Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: the Twentieth Century (1983), wrote that, “Nothing seems to have been recorded about Balfour’s life and career.” As we shall see, these days much more information about him is accessible.

One problem has always been that RB is not known as a magazine illustrator, and he illustrated no other books before he produced his illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat for Constable and Co. in 1920. This, of course, rather begs the question of how, with no prior reputation as an illustrator, he came to get a contract to illustrate The Rubaiyat for such a prestigious company as Constable. Some time back I did make enquiries at Constable & Co., but no records were available, unfortunately. An article by Martin Steenson (1) made me wonder if perhaps it was on account of his involvement in costume design, but none of these undated designs seemed to have been published. However, a trawl through the British Newspaper Archive (hereafter BNA) revealed two interesting items. The first, shown in Fig.1a, is a feature on “The Great ‘Dazzle Ball’ of the Chelsea Arts Club” in The Tatler for 26 February 1919. This gives two costume designs by RB, both of which will strike of chord when we come to look at his Rubaiyat illustrations. But this is the only published example to surface in the BNA prior to 1920. The next related item to surface is the advert for Samuel Soden Ltd, Court Furriers of London’s Regent Street, published in The Daily Mirror on 25 September 1922, and shown in Fig.1b. Their designs, we are told, not only rival those of Paris, but have an “originality of line worthy of Ronald Balfour.” This can certainly be taken to suggest that RB had a reputation in costume design in 1922, but why is there no evidence for this, aside from Fig.1a in 1919 ? One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the saying goes, and it seems unlikely that he got that contract with Constable & Co. on the strength of just this. Let us take a closer look at the background to Fig.1a.

The Dazzle Ball (2) was, in effect, a big post–war fancy–dress party. Its theme, somewhat bizarrely, had naval origins, involving “dazzle” in the sense of dazzling (= confusing) the enemy with camouflage, as well as in the sense of razzle–dazzle dressing up. RB was just one of several servicemen, army as well as navy, who contributed costume designs. In fact, as The Daily Mirror on 26 February 1919 (p.11 col.1) tells us, the show was run by Lieutenant–Commander Wilkinson, assisted by Lieutenant King, Captain Poole and Sergeant Webster – “all well known in the art world” – with no mention of RB. The context is made clear by Fig.1c, a report in The Sketch on 5 March 1919 (again no mention of RB.) Readers can be forgiven for thinking that “camouflage” was used in a very loose sense indeed, though this is to misunderstand the nature of “dazzle camouflage,” which had actually been the brain–child of the above–mentioned Lieutenant–Commander Wilkinson. Its aim was not to hide a ship, chameleon–wise, but to misdirect enemy fire by misleading their estimates of the ship’s course, this being done using inclined sets of zebra–crossing–like stripes, as in Fig.1d. The Dazzle Ball costume shown in Fig.1e, taken from the front page of The Sketch of 19 March 1919, actually captures the spirit of the technique quite well, even though it does look more like an exercise in optical illusion or a piece of cubist art! However, the main point here is that RB’s designs in Fig.1a are not really fashion designs as such, indicative of “greater things”, but fancy dress costumes for a special occasion. As such they are hardly likely to have attracted the attention of Constable & Co. (The nature of the event is well captured in the cartoon shown in Fig.1f, taken from The Sketch of 26 March 1919 (p.20.) Many of the costumes, including RB’s, seem to have had precious little to do with dazzle camouflage, and the pantomime giraffe rather says it all!)

But it transpires, as we shall see presently, that RB began his drawings related to The Rubaiyat as early as 1913–4. So one begins to wonder if it was a portfolio of these early Rubaiyat illustrations which landed him the contract with Constable, and led to later fashion illustrations (and the reputation of Fig.1b), rather than early fashion illustrations which led to his contract to illustrate The Rubaiyat. It is also possible, of course, that the contract owed something to contacts made in the navy – perhaps one or other of his fellow artists involved in the Dazzle Ball – or to family contacts (as we shall see, RB came from a well–to–do family.)

But whatever the order of things, it is a fact that RB did become involved in dress and costume design, and, as Martin Steenson noted (1), that he did work for Fox Films in that capacity in the mid 1930s. More on that later, but meanwhile let us stay with his book illustration.

RB only ever illustrated one other book besides The Rubaiyat: he produced the eighteen decorative chapter heading illustrations for Constance Bridges’ book Thin Air, an account of an expedition to the Himalayas, in which he took part, published by Brewer and Warren Inc., New York, in 1930. We shall have more to say about this book later, but suffice it to say at this stage that it gives us a first–hand account of RB’s predilection for, and remarkable skill in, sketching naked women – his “paper harem,” as Bridges calls it. RB is certainly one of those artists who have given a mildly erotic slant to his illustrations, in his case probably not out of an association with the houris, harems and dancing girls of the exotic orient, but simply because he delighted in drawing naked and scantily clad young women.

Let us now look at his illustrations of The Rubaiyat, which I must confess to being among my favourites. His costume designs and his “paper harem” explain much of what follows.

The Rubaiyat

The front cover and title–page of the Constable Edition of 1920 (Potter #116) are shown in Figs.2a & 2b. The text used was FitzGerald’s first edition, each of its 75 quatrains being given its own left–hand page, and each quatrain being faced by either a line–drawing or a tipped–in plate, on the right–hand page. One tends to assume that the tipped–in plates were intended to illustrate their facing quatrains, though as we shall see, this assumption is not always well founded! The line–drawings, almost totally of young women either in fancy costumes or in various stages of undress, appear to be mainly space–fillers, albeit effective ones.

To deal with the tipped–in plates first, besides the frontispiece there are 37 of them each facing an odd numbered quatrain. This is not to say that RB illustrated only the odd numbered quatrains, but seems to be more a case of getting a uniform spacing of the plates throughout the book, relevance to the facing quatrain not being a key issue in many cases! Hence, as will become clear, it is frequently difficult to see what relevance, if any, some of the plates have to their ‘associated’ quatrains, but since the plates are generically Omarian in tone, there is generally a ‘fit’ somewhere. Incidentally, quatrain 23 is the only odd numbered quatrain without a facing tipped–in plate: the frontispiece – the 38th plate (Fig.2c) – could be interpreted either as a generic illustration of Omar and his Beloved, relating to no specific quatrain, or as the ‘missing’ illustration for quatrain 23 (“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend &c.”) However, as we shall see later, there may be another explanation: the plate intended to face quatrain 23 simply got missed out for some reason in the 1920 edition!

I make no apology for reproducing 22 more of RB’s wonderful tipped–in plates here, as they are well worth the study, even if some of their details are puzzling to say the least. The images can be browsed here.

Fig.2d illustrates / faces quatrain 3: “faces” is probably more appropriate here, with no cock crowing and no tavern door! A wonderful drawing, but representing what ? The only nod towards Omar is the cityscape at the base, with its domes, towers and minarets. Assuming this illustration does relate to quatrain 3, might the winged girl be a soul departing, never to return ? If so, what is the strip of black drapery that trails behind her, connecting her back to Earth ? Is it, perhaps, RB’s take on the cord that traditionally connects the physical body to the astral body ? Does the black ‘hill’ to the lower left have a face by design, and if so, is it waking up at cock–crow ? And what is that curious thing, highlighted in red, to the lower right, with three falling flowers above it ? It seems to be sprouting from a mosque, and so it perhaps relates to cock–crow as representative of the morning call to prayer. But I must confess that I have seen no fully convincing explanation of it.

Fig.2e illustrates / faces quatrain 5: beautifully drawn, but though there is a garden in evidence and an ‘oriental’ city in the background (RB’s Iram ?), there don’t seem to be any vines, still less anything to do with “Jamshyd’s Sev’n–ringed Cup.” The young woman, wearing distinctly art–deco head–gear, presumably represents hedonistic luxury. Note the RB monogram in the lower right hand corner, with a book (of verse ?) next to it.

Fig.2f illustrates / faces quatrain 7: one of the 6 full colour plates in the book. The bird on the girl’s left hand could be the Bird of Time, and her dress “the Winter Garment of Repentance”, but really this could be one of RB’s costume designs by another name. Note the girl forming the support of a Wine Jug (or Cup ?) at the base of the tree on the left - not naked, as it seems at first glance, but wearing a diaphanous and jewel–decorated type of costume.

Fig.2g illustrates quatrain 11: here we do at least have Omar and his Beloved “beneath the Bough”, holding wine glasses (hers noticeably smaller), but with no loaf of bread or book of verse. Again, costume is a major feature. Note the the RB monogram at the tip of Omar’s right foot.

Fig.2h illustrates quatrain 13: there certainly seem to be roses in the lower left foreground, and the tree on the right might be a rose–bush of a type with which I am unfamiliar. Plus the girl is dropping petals from her left hand (“the silken Tassel of my Purse” ?), so perhaps she is RB’s “Rose” in costume design mode. Note the RB monogram just below the centre of the left hand edge.

Fig.2i illustrates / faces quatrain 17: almost certainly “faces” here, as this delightful example of RB’s “paper harem” bears little if any relation to the Courts of Jamshyd (unless via hedonistic luxury), and still less to “Bahram, that great Hunter”. Note particularly the art–deco costume and high–heels of the standing girl. There seems to be a variant of RB’s monogram in the bottom left hand corner (REB ? His middle name was Egerton.)

Fig.2j illustrates / faces quatrain 19: there is a nod towards “delightful Herb” and “the River’s Lip”, but this is surely RB in costume mode, though the girl mysteriously materialising out of the base of the tree to the lower left makes one wonder if costume is the whole story.

Fig.2k illustrates / faces quatrain 27: arguably ‘metaphysical’ in content, but metaphysically what, unless representing a search for Truth (“Doctor and Saint &c”)? Clearly not RB in either costume mode or “paper harem” mode.

Fig.2l illustrates / faces quatrain 29: again, beautifully (and almost psychedelically ?) drawn, but what has it to do with this quatrain ? A slim pillar seems to divide a dark zone from a light one. A female figure, stepping from the dark zone to the light one, seems to offer a bowl (of wine ? the Cup of quatrain 30 ?) to the one (again female) in the light. The costumes of both figures are again a key feature. It is interesting that at the base of the picture is a procession of dancing figures led by Pan, with the (Edenic ?) snake rearing up over his followers, perhaps indicating the moral price to be paid for sinful pleasures. Note the REB (?) monogram in the bottom right hand corner.

Fig.2m illustrates / faces quatrain 31: another rather mystifying ‘psychedelic’ extravaganza, bearing little relation to quatrain 31, except if the central figure – a naked man for once – is seen as rising “Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate”, with distorted and mask–like faces plus a couple of topless girls below. Note the bald headed man to the left, whose arm reaches out, behind a peacock feather, with a small bird in attendance, but reaches out to do what ? It looks like he is about to turn a dial of some sort. Note also the horned fairy–like male figure to the upper right, and the other fairy–like female figure observing the proceedings from the upper left. Seen as a whole, this illustration certainly has the air of a drug–induced vision more commonly associated with the underground culture of the late 1960s.

Fig.2n illustrates / faces quatrain 33: yet more ‘psychedelia’ having little or nothing to do with the quatrain it faces, but still fascinating. Note the peacock behind the naked girl on the left, with more peacock feathers in the upper right hand corner, reminiscent of the work of Aubrey Beardsley and Mera K. Sett. The central figure, of course, is RB in costume–mode again, but what are the foetus–like decorations on the covering from behind which a girl is emerging at the lower left ? Note the horned mask beside her head. Note also the pentagram just under half way up the left hand edge, and within it what seems to be a concoction loosely based on the astrological symbols for the Sun, Mercury and Venus. Is the curious object to the lower right, from which three plumes of vapour (?) are rising up, supposed to be the Lamp of Destiny ? If so, what does the figure rising amid the fumes represent ? If the figure is elderly and female, she might represent the destiny (old age) of the youthful central figure, at which she is looking. And what on earth does the surreal topless girl–chicken on the right represent ? These various odd details – like the assorted faces at the base of the picture – suggest that RB may have sketched on a stream–of–consciousness basis, otherwise known as automatic drawing, and if so, this may well explain some of the curious details in some of his other pictures. Though the automatic drawings associated with Surrealism had not really begun in 1920, the technique had been used by Austin Osman Spare in The Book of Pleasure (Self–Love): the Psychology of Ecstasy, privately published in 1913, and quite possibly by Aubrey Beardsley in some of his "Bon Mots" vignettes, published in 1893–4.

Fig.2o illustrates / faces quatrain 41: This is one of those quatrains which is difficult to illustrate (“For ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’ &c”), and this plate doesn’t illustrate it at all. This is all pure RB “paper harem” and costume design, with another peacock, a star and a tall candle, but not even a hint of the Wine in the last line of the quatrain. Curiously, the naked girl seated at the lower right seems to be holding an opium pipe, highlighted, like her lips, in red. This perhaps raises questions about whether RB himself dabbled in opium, and how much this might explain some of his illustrations. Note the RB monogram near the centre of the bottom edge.

Fig.2p illustrates / faces quatrain 43: if this does indeed illustrate this verse, the Grape is presumably represented by the large wine–bowl with the nude winged (?) male a representation of Dionysus / Bacchus, the god of wine, “The subtle Alchemist”. The curious figure leaning backwards over the edge of the bowl could then perhaps represent a confuted (inebriated) member of “The Two–and–Seventy jarring Sects.”

Fig.2q illustrates / faces quatrain 45: another naked man, though with an effeminate face and hairstyle, plus some dainty footwear, and with four members of RB’s “paper harem” in attendance. Does this all represent “the Quarrel of the Universe” ? If so, is this the perpetual ‘quarrel’ between Good and Evil, with the central figure about to decapitate the (Edenic ?) serpent rearing up from the midst of the group of people to the lower left ? Does the serpent’s rising up from amongst people indicate that the theme is one of the Sins of the Flesh ? Some of the details again suggest an automatic drawing technique – note the masked topless girl, and the crowned and winged (?) naked girl to the lower left. Note also the Medusa–like figure and the girl holding up an REB (?) monogram to the lower right.

Fig.2r illustrates / faces quatrain 47: Another illustration that seems to have nothing to do with the quatrain it faces (“the Wine you drink, the Lip you press &c.”) The figure surely owes much to Aubrey Beardsley, with a face tiny in comparison with a mass of drapery being reminiscent of Beardsley’s famous “Peacock Skirt” or his “Isolde”, for example, though as we shall see, RB denied any such influence.

Fig.2s illustrates / faces quatrain 49: there is no Chequer–board here, and though the figure of Death on the right, holding the hour–glass of Time in his left hand, could be Destiny about to lay the elaborately dressed young woman “back in the Closet”, he would better fit “the Angel with his darker Draught” of quatrain 48, which, being an even numbered quatrain, has no plate facing it. Note the RB monogram near the bottom of the right hand edge.

Fig.2t illustrates / faces quatrain 51: if this curious, but beautifully executed, drawing illustrates this quatrain, the Moving Finger would be represented by the snake held in the right hand of the wizard–like figure in black. Note the zodiacal signs on the Inverted Bowl (?) – possibly a hark forward to that in quatrain 52 (even numbered, therefore with no facing plate) ? Who the wizard’s glamorous assistant is, is anybody’s guess – she might even be based on a stage magician’s female assistant! But whatever, she appears to be wearing a head–dress bearing mystical symbols (four at the top left appear to be the Arabic numerals 1222, but generally I suspect they are just made–up ‘mumbo jumbo’.) Note the REB (?) monogram near the left hand corner of the bottom edge.

Fig.2u illustrates / faces quatrain 53: Another illustration which seems to have nothing to do with its facing quatrain. The small figure in the foreground seems to represent Mortal Man, with what could be the figures of Death and Fate either side, dressed in black. The central female figure looks to be winged like the Middle Eastern goddess Astarte / Ishtar – note the star atop her crown, indicating her celestial nature. She holds an egg in her right hand, symbolising Fertility, and a variety of an ankh symbol in her left, symbolising Life. (Though the ankh symbol is Egyptian in origin, Astarte did acquire a variant of it, consisting of a circle with a straight bar tangential to its lowest point – effectively the traditional Egyptian symbol with its lower limb removed.) Note the stellar and planetary scene at the base of the picture (with a comet and two Saturns!), from which a snake–like incense holder (?) rises up, a bizarre smiling face forming within its fumes. Five other grotesque faces are readily visible, though their significance, if anything other than automatic drawings, isn’t clear.

Fig.2v illustrates / faces quatrain 57: this could well be a wonderfully executed 1920s interpretation of this quatrain, the man in top hat and tails being tempted into Sin by the disproportionately large, glamorously dressed young woman in high heels. Note the Serpent to the lower left. As for the winking head to the upper right, this would then be “Thou who didst with Pitfall and with Gin &c.” Note the REB (?) monogram in the bottom left–hand corner.

Fig.2w illustrates / faces quatrain 59: This plate probably does relate to this quatrain (“in that old Potter’s Shop &c”) by virtue of the row of pots along the bottom, but RB’s key focus here is clearly on his topless model and her elaborate peacock–feather–design gown.

Fig.2x illustrates / faces quatrain 69: This could well illustrate this quatrain, for the girl dancing to the tune of a piper in the lower foreground, and watched by a portly and rather lascivious looking man, may well have sold her “Reputation for a Song.” Again, though, RB’s key focus is on the girl.

Fig.2y illustrates / faces quatrain 75: Another of RB’s coloured illustrations, this doesn’t seem to have much if anything to do with this quatrain, though its crescent moon may hark back to “Moon of my Delight” in the opening line of the previous (even numbered) quatrain. Note the bird of paradise in the tree on the right, and the REB (?) monogram in the bottom right–hand corner.

The foregoing constitute just under two–thirds of RB’s plates, selected as best showing his style, his working methods and his approach to illustrating FitzGerald’s quatrains. As can be seen, not all are either erotic or costume oriented or both – indeed, one of his coloured plates (facing quatrain 25, but having little to do with it!), is a straight landscape; and his plate facing quatrain 63 shows a hump–backed and gnarled old man “leaning all awry” in accordance with the quatrain.

Let us now look briefly at the line drawings which face the even numbered quatrains. There were 22 different designs in all, each used anything up to 3 times in the course of the book. All, with one exception (a bunch of grapes, appropriately facing quatrain 42), depict young women, and most of these are either costume designs or members of RB’s “paper harem”. Figs.3a, 3b & 3c are examples of the former category, and Figs.3d, 3e & 3f of the latter. The images can be browsed here.

The Constable edition of The Rubaiyat was published in good time to catch the Christmas Market of 1920. Two contemporary newspaper advertisements for it are shown here as Fig.4a (Westminster Gazette) and Fig.4b (Yorkshire Post). As can be seen, both use RB’s drawings – the former uses Fig.3f and the latter Fig.3c – no doubt hoping that these shapely young ladies would promote sales. Both adverts indicate that limited deluxe editions were to follow – an edition of 100 copies on hand–made paper and an edition of 50 copies on Japanese vellum, the latter with an extra hand–coloured plate. This extra plate is shown in Fig.2z and clearly illustrates quatrain 58 (“And who with Eden didst devise the Snake &c.”)

The Reviews

Writing in his “Literary Letter” column in The Sphere on 20 November 1920 (p.14, col.3), Clement K. Shorter wrote:

Mr Ronald Balfour, who has given us the newest edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, is, I am told, a cousin of Mr Arthur Balfour. What is of more importance, he is a very brilliant artist. In some of his pictures one suspects the influence of Beardsley, but then I am informed he had never seen Beardsley’s work when he made them. They are altogether a very charming interpretation of Edward FitzGerald’s great poem.

It is difficult to believe that RB owed nothing to Beardsley (a similar denial was made by Mera K. Sett), but there it is.

Another (anonymous) review on the “Christmas Gift Books” page of The Scotsman on 25 November 1920 (p.2, col.5) reads thus:

Mr Balfour’s designs are fancifully Oriental in character, touched with a considerable suggestion of Aubrey Beardsley, and it is possible that his rather lank divinities might not have entirely appealed to the imagination of the Persian poet. The designs, however, display a remarkable lightness and grace of line, and some of the little line drawings, printed upon the brown paper which is also employed for the letterpress, are extremely dainty, while the more elaborate designs in black and white, or in colour, printed on plate paper, are quite brilliantly executed.

Another review, by E.B. Osborn, printed in The Illustrated London News on 27 November 1920 (p.24), noted of RB that “a distinctive point about his work is the note of modern fashion in the feminine figures,” adding that:

Some of Mr Balfour’s illustrations to Omar Khayyam were done when he was little more than seventeen. Those most resembling the Aubrey Beardsley style were done before he had ever seen any of Beardsley’s work.

RB would have been “little more than seventeen” in 1913–1914, some years before the book appeared, and if his drawings were done over an extended period, this may well explain the different RB monograms encountered above.

An anonymous reviewer writing in the Christmas Gift Books column of The Yorkshire Post on 8 December 1920 (p.4, col.7) called it “a gorgeous reprint of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, illustrated by Mr Ronald Balfour with fantastic imagery” but then concluded, somewhat disparagingly: “One or two of Mr Balfour’s drawings are memorable.”

A review in The Times on 9 December 1920 (p.15 col.4) reads thus:

“The Rubaiyat” can be had with new illustrations by Mr Ronald Balfour (Constable, 21s. net), who, in spite of the influence of Beardsley on his drawing, gives us in a few colour plates and in many black–and–white drawings (some of them just touched with colour) a vision of the poem which is original and sincere if at times surprising. Even the audacity of showing us in one place a young man and woman in modern evening dress is carried off without shocking us too deeply, because it is what Mr Balfour honestly sees.

Again, then, RB couldn’t escape the comparison with Beardsley. The “modern evening dress” illustration is, of course, Fig.2v, above, and, rightly or wrongly, that phrase “it is what Mr Balfour honestly sees” reminds me of that opium pipe in Fig.2o.

Though largely favourable, it seems to me that the foregoing reviewers missed an awful lot of what was going on in RB’s illustrations.

Finally, under the heading “Studio Exhibitions”, The Westminster Gazette for 2 April 1921 (p.4, col.1) reported that in three private London Studios, RB and another artist (J. St. Helier Lander) had been exhibiting their work. In the case of RB, the exhibition was of his drawings for Omar, though as the reporter noted, the work of both artists was on show for only two afternoons, and with too little advance publicity.

Other Editions of RB’s Rubaiyat

In the USA a direct reprint of the Constable edition was published by Dodd Mead and Company of New York. In cover design and contents, it was identical to the Constable edition, and though it was undated, it presumably appeared, in tandem with the Constable edition in 1920.

In 1922, again in time for the Christmas market, Constable & Co. issued what The Westminster Gazette, on 29 November 1922, called “a cheaper but still handsome ... new edition” (p.12, col.5) of RB’s Rubaiyat. There seem to be no available details of what this edition looked like.

Better known is the Constable edition published – again in time for Christmas – in 1930 (Coumans #84.) Its Beardsleyesque title page is shown in Fig.5a and a sample two–page spread in Fig.5b. As can be seen from the latter, each plate faced the quatrain which it faced in the 1920 edition, but now there are two quatrains to each left–hand page, and the line drawings now appear on the pages with the quatrains. On the back of the title–page we are told that this New Edition was published in 1930 and that the book was First Published in 1920: there is no mention of any 1922 edition.

But there is one other thing worthy of note about this edition, and it is shown in Fig.5c. This is the plate facing quatrains 23 and 24, and following the pattern of the other plates in this edition, it ought to have been featured facing quatrain 23 in the 1920 edition. But as noted above, it wasn’t. Since the frontispieces of the 1920 and 1930 editions are the same, it seems unlikely that the frontispiece was ever intended to face quatrain 23, and that therefore Fig.5c was either accidentally omitted from the 1920 edition, or was done specially for the 1930 edition to fill the gap in the otherwise regular spacing of the plates in the 1920 edition which someone (at Constable ?) had spotted. The former seems more likely to me personally. The plate, of course, is in typically RB style, with the emphasis on a richly dressed and bejewelled Sultan–like figure, though with no naked women in attendance. Note the open jewel box at the feet of the Sultan, the use of peacock feathers again, and the RB monogram in the bottom left–hand corner. Quite what it has to do with quatrain 23 (“Ah make the most of what we yet may spend &c”), though, is not clear, unless it denotes the transience of wealth and power in the face of an inevitable death (“Before we too into the Dust descend &c.”)

As with the 1920 Constable edition, an American edition was published in tandem with the 1930 Constable edition, this time published by Richard R. Smith of New York.

RB’s illustrations have been used in at least two modern editions.

Six of the black and white illustrations appeared in an edition published by the Catharijne Press, Zuilichem in 1994 (Coumans #931). This limited edition had an Introduction by Jos Biegstraaten.

RB’s illustrations also appeared in a rather nice edition of The Rubaiyat – with parallel Japanese and English text – published by MAAR–sha Publishing Company in 2005 (ISBN 4–8373–0430–3.) Note, though, that the Constable editions used the text of FitzGerald’s 1st edition, whereas the Japanese edition used the text of FitzGerald’s 2nd edition. In addition, the illustrations in the Japanese edition no longer necessarily feature in association with the quatrains with which Balfour (or Constable) originally associated them, though as we saw above, this is not necessarily a catastrophe, as many of the illustrations seem to have little or nothing to do with their ‘associated’ quatrains anyway.

It is time now to look at the artist and his life. It is not the story of a struggling artist living in a dismal garret somewhere, and starving for his art. Rather, as his being a cousin of one–time prime minister A.J. Balfour might suggest, it is a tale of a privileged family, an involvement with fashionable ‘Society’ and the so–called “Bright Young Things”, but with an early death at the age of 45.

Some Biographical Details

Ronald Egerton Balfour, to give him his full name, was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 24 August 1896. He was the son of Brigadier–General Sir Alfred Granville Balfour (though at the time of RB’s birth he had not yet achieved that grandiose status) and his wife, Agnes Frances Elizabeth Balfour (née Simpson). She had been born in India, and the couple had married there in 1886. Whether it was because his parents were back in India or otherwise is not clear, but in the 1901 census the four years old RB was living at 164 Ashley Gardens, Westminster, London, in the care of four servants. The family was together, however, by the time of the 1911 census, for RB, now aged 14 and at school, is recorded as living with his parents and four servants at 7 Durham Place, Chelsea, London. This address was to remain the family residence on into the 1920s. The census return tells us that he had two siblings, one of whom was already dead, and the other still living, but not with the family. These were RB’s brothers, John who seems to have died in India in 1891 at the age of 4, and James, who was to die in action in 1917 at the age of 28.

At the start of the First World War RB joined the Navy, serving as a Midshipman at Pembroke Dockyard in 1915. On his naval record card (3), his superior officer recorded that he was a very talented young officer, of great assistance to him, adding that he was “clear–headed, keen on his work, but not very strong physically; has had no training in seamanship or any experience afloat, but is of very great use in this office.” Curiously his naval record for 1915 makes a passing mention of “French (sic) sketching book illustrations”, but gives no details. It has been said that he served in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (4), but I have seen no evidence of this. However, he did gain promotion and by 1918 was a Hydrophone (submarine detection) Officer at Gibraltar. He was demobilised in February 1919, having achieved the rank of Temporary Lieutenant, after which the Electoral Roll shows that he returned to the family home at 7 Durham Place. As indicated above, his older brother James had been killed in action in 1917.

We have seen that in 1919 RB had been involved in costume designs for the Dazzle Ball (Fig.1a) and, of course, in 1920 his Rubaiyat appeared. Quite what he was doing through the 1920s is unclear, though we do know that in 1924 Constable published Ernest Milton’s play Christopher Marlowe, with a Prologue by Walter de la Mare and a cover designed by RB. It is also known that that at the end of the decade he was a manager for Standard Oil (5). It is also possible that he was involved in making himself a reputation as a costume designer, for, as we shall see, he was designing costumes for Fox Films by the mid 1930s. But if so, where, or for whom, he worked has not come to light at present.

We do know that sometime before 1930 he was in the Himalayas, an account of which was given in Constance Bridges’ book Thin Air, published in 1930, and mentioned earlier. This episode merits a section to itself.

Thin Air

Constance Bridges’ book is not commonly encountered, so it may be useful to give some information about it here. Unfortunately, it is singularly devoid of dates, so it is not clear when exactly the expedition took place, but given that the book was published in 1930 it is likely that it took place in 1928–9. The title–page tells us “Decorations by Ronald Balfour”, but in her Foreword Bridges tells us that in her book, “for evident reasons, I have not used the real names of the persons concerned.” Thus, when she tells us of her indebtedness “to ‘Ian’ for his characteristic decorations (done, I trust, with both hands)”, she is not only telling us that in the text of the book Ian is RB, but she is also referring to RB’s extraordinary ability to draw equally well with either hand, and, on occasion, with both hands at once. She refers to this ability again on p.13:

Ian, a pencil in each hand, was racing a Hindu on the bank. The Hindu, squatted in a neat triangle, was languidly dipping his turban in the river. Ian’s right and left hands, equally adept, were trying to put him down on paper before he finished and could spoil the composition.

Again, on p.59, comes the already encountered “paper harem”:

Ian sketched steadily – a series of imaginative fantasies. His specialty was naked women. When we expressed solicitude over this symptom of a dangerous suppression, he would grin guiltily with his cigarette drooping from his upper lip and go on placidly creating his paper harem. His left hand sufficed if he was half–hearted about it; but when he was absorbed by the intricacies of a Beardsleyesque pattern, he used both hands on opposite corners of the design to the respectful wonder of the rest of us.

We are told nothing more about RB other than that he joined the expedition “by request” (whether his or hers is not clear – p.19); that he was “six feet tall and slim as a needle” (p.60–1); that he had an interest in collecting rare plants (pp.23–4, 61, 67); that he had to leave the expedition early (p.83) to return to “a London desk” (p.119); that he captured two bulbuls as pets, calling them Omar and Fatima, which he hoped to take back to England with him, until someone (probably Bridges herself) took pity on them and released them (p.121–2); and that he had “troubles of his own, happily put aside for months, which he must return to England to face”(p.124.)

Unfortunately we are not told anything more about the nature of his London desk (presumably at Standard Oil, as mentioned above), or about the troubles which he had to face back in England. Nor do we know how RB came to know Constance Bridges, who was an American (6), but on his return to London he seems to have gone back to his parents, for in the electoral roll for 1929 they are all together, now at 3 Eaton Gate, London SW1.

This being the only other book illustrated by RB, I give six of his eighteen chapter heading illustrations here as Figs.6a, 6b, 6c, 6d, 6e & 6f. (The images can be browsed here.) These are of a very different nature to his Rubaiyat illustrations, though the lotus flowers in Fig.6a perhaps recall those in Fig.3d; the decorative swirls in Fig.6b recall those at the base of Fig.2s; and the naked man in Fig.6f [intended, I think, to represent the American David Wendell, whose naked body turned up in a shallow grave sometime after he had vanished “into thin air” (p.381–2)] is reminiscent of the naked man at the centre of Fig.2m. Since RB / “Ian” leaves the book for good on p.128, which is in ch.6, all the headpiece illustrations from ch.7 onwards must have been done from photographs / information supplied later, or out of his fertile imagination.


On 24 April 1930, at Westminster Cathedral, RB married Deirdre Phyllis Ulrica Hart–Davis, some 13 years his junior, the younger sister of writer, editor and publisher Rupert Hart–Davis, and, it is said, a direct if illegitimate descendant of William IV. Quite how or when they met is not clear, but certainly their engagement was announced in the “Forthcoming Marriages” column of The Times on 10 December 1929, and reported, for example in The Daily Mirror on 12 December (p.18, col.4), with a feature in The Tatler on 18 December (p.6). The marriage – unusual because she was a Catholic and he was not – was given a full page in The Sketch on 30 April (Fig.7). I reproduce this page in full because it sets the scene for what follows, for she was a famous beauty, socialite and “beacon of style.” She was one of the so–called “Bright Young Things” and was included in Cecil Beaton’s The Book of Beauty (London, 1930, p.34.) Then, as with today’s ‘celebrities’, almost everything they did attracted attention in the press, particularly in the ‘Society’ columns.

Not surprisingly, the birth of their first daughter, Susan Mary Balfour, in 1931, and her subsequent christening in Westminster Cathedral, merited a gushing photo in The Sphere on 9 May (p.14.) But far more trivial things hit the news. Thus on 22 January 1932 in the “Society’s Doings” column of the Bournemouth and Southampton Graphic (p.2), it was noted that the front door of the Balfours’ home in Wellington Square, London, was bright scarlet with a blue witchball. And when Mrs Balfour appeared at the Savoy wearing “a trouser evening dress of patterned leaf–brown crepe–de–chine, with elbow puffs to her long, close fitting sleeves” it was considered newsworthy enough to be reported in the Morecambe Guardian on 4 March 1932 (p.8, col.2.) Likewise, when she appeared at L’Aperitif wearing “a Tyrolean hat in green, rising to a sugar loaf point and banded with red” the sensation was enough to feature in the “Today’s Gossip” column of The Daily Mirror on 12 September 1934 (p.9, col.1.) Of more interest to us here, though, is a short piece under the heading “‘Gothic’ Dress” which appeared in The Daily Mirror on Saturday 29 February 1936 (p.9, col.2):

On Monday Mr Ronald Balfour’s lovely wife, Deirdre, a niece of Lady Diana Duff Cooper, will show as a model some of the exquisite dresses which her husband has designed for her.

Dress designing is a new departure for Mr Balfour, who has previously confined his artistic abilities to illustrating books.

One of the dresses is called ‘Gothic’. It is grey, looks like elephant skin, and has one long sleeve and one short.

As we have seen, outside of his Rubaiyat, RB did venture into costume design on the occasion of the Dazzle Ball as early as 1919, but the above report, if correct, rather suggests that he had done little if any since then. I will pass no comment on the ‘Gothic’ dress.

As a model, Mrs Balfour made regular appearances in The Bystander magazine. Two examples will suffice here, the first (Fig.8a) from the issue of 23 March 1932, and the second (Fig.8b) from the issue of 4 January 1933. She was also a ‘natural’ for appearing in charity tableaux and pageants, such the one featured in The Bystander (again!) on 27 July 1932 (Fig.8c.) Note that the portrait is by Man Ray, no less: Mrs B never did things by halves. (The Fouquet Madonna, incidentally, featured in an earlier edition of The Bystander – on 29 June 1932 – see Fig.8d.)

By this time one begins to wonder if RB had become simply an adjunct to his glamorous celebrity wife, especially when one reads captions like the following, which appeared on the “Social Faces” page of The Bystander on 17 July 1934 (p.34) next to a typically staged celebrity portrait:

The lovely Mrs Ronnie Balfour is still always talked of as the lovely Deirdre Hart–Davis; her debutante beauty has become something of a legend. She married Brig.–Gen. Sir Alfred and Lady Balfour’s only son five years ago, and has one daughter, Susan, and a pleasant house in Wellington Square.

Whether RB resented being eclipsed by his wife, or whether he accepted it and laughed all the way to the bank, is not known. Incidentally, the 1934 electoral roll reveals that they were living at 24 Wellington Square.

As to the life they led as a couple, their appearance at Cowes Week in the second week of August 1932 was duly reported in The Bystander (Fig.9a); their appearance at the TT Races at Belfast, later that same month, was duly noted in The Belfast News Letter of 19 August (p.7, col.3); their snapshots from a holiday in Majorca were published in The Sketch on 7 December 1932 (p.10); and their appearance in fancy dress at the Austrian Legation Ball featured in The Tatler (Fig.9b) on 26 December 1934. RB was clearly a fan of ballet, for The Bystander photographed him with a Mrs Fleitmann on his visit to Sadler’s Wells in November 1935 (Fig.9c) – Mrs Balfour was nowhere to be seen for once. (The same magazine had covered his attendance there in October 1934.) This interest in ballet naturally makes one wonder if his Dazzle Ball dress designs and some of his Rubaiyat drawings owed something to the famous ballet costumes created by Leon Bakst in the 1910s.

Hollywood Beckons

It was in 1934 that Hollywood entered the picture. On 30 May 1934 The Sketch ran a feature by “Mariegold” on Lord and Lady Rosebery’s grand ball and full–dress gathering of the cream of London Society. Prince George and the Princess Royal (ie the future George VI and his sister Mary) were in attendance, but more importantly from our point of view, so were Mr and Mrs Balfour. The following paragraph (p.17, col.1) is of interest here, though RB merits but a fleeting mention among the dresses worn by some of the ladies present, Mrs Balfour included, needless to say:

The all–U.S.A. food was a great success. The menu included the loveliest salads, lobster in an unusual way, pork and beans, and waffles. Thelma Lady Furness, who can wear a backless dress better than anyone else I know, was in black satin; Mrs Ronald Balfour’s lacquer–red, worn with golden bracelets, was designed by her husband, who is doing some remarkable décors and costumes for Fox Films; and Lady Milford Haven was at her best in white.

More details of the circumstances behind this were given in Kinematograph Weekly on 4 October 1934 (p.25). Under the heading “Fox starts work at Wembley: Fully Equipped Studios” it is made clear that this large 2½ acre site was to be the home of Fox British Productions. Among a list of personnel we find “art director, Ronald Balfour.” Nothing further has come to light about his career with Fox Films, but we do know that he designed at least one costume for Miss Anna May Wong in the 1934 film Java Head, for his design is preserved in the National Art Library, along with three of his original Rubaiyat drawings. (7) (No images available, unfortunately.)

How he landed the job with Fox Films is as mysterious as how he landed the contract with Constable & Co. back in 1920. His Rubaiyat had been republished in both England and America in 1930, of course, and it was certainly a popular edition, so it may have something to do with the costumes and set–design–like illustrations in that. Plus, he may well have done some costume design that we don’t yet know about: certainly there are some extant but unpublished (and, alas, undated) designs which might support this (1 & 7.)

More Family Life

Back on the family front, the Balfours’ second daughter, Annabel Clare Balfour, was born in 1935. She seems not to have attracted the same media attention as her older sister, though the curtains chosen by Mrs Balfour for the children’s nursery (“pink ones for a green day nursery and its pink painted furniture”) featured in an article on how Society Mothers planned their nurseries, which appeared in The Scotsman on 18 February 1938 (p.16.)

In 1936 both of RB’s parents died – his father in March and his mother in May. An obituary of his father was published in The Times on 16 March (p.17, col.4) from which it transpires that despite his high rank, he had actually seen little active service in his career. Somewhat quaintly to modern ears, we are told that “as a regimental officer he specialised in musketry.”

In the 1939 Register of England and Wales, RB is recorded as living in St. James Square, Westminster, his occupation being listed as “None.” This seems to have been his London base, possibly rented for business / naval purposes. Certainly his wife and children were not at the same address, and indeed they do not seem to feature in the 1939 Register at all, which presumably means they were out of the country.

At the start of the Second World War, RB joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, becoming an Acting Temporary Lieutenant–Commander, working in the Map Room of the Admiralty (8). Whether on account of the War or not, on 21 July 1940 Deirdre Balfour and her two daughters set sail from Liverpool to New York aboard the SS M.V. Britannic. They arrived on 29 July, to join one Jules S. Bache, a friend, of 814–5th Avenue, New York. The immigration paperwork lists their next of kin as RB, his address being given as Gadds Meadow, West Chiltington, Pulborough, Sussex, a country retreat but also a place of refuge from the German bombing of London. But it was to be West Chiltington that led to his death, for it was whilst driving there from London on the night of April 15th–16th 1941, after a long day at the Admiralty, that he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed instantly in a crash on the Kingston Bypass. Under the heading “Artist Officer Dead After Accident” The Manchester Evening News ran the following news item on 19 April (p.3, col.3):

Lieutenant–Commander Ronald Egerton Balfour, only surviving son of the late Brigadier–General Sir Alfred Balfour and the late Lady Balfour, has died as a result of a motoring accident.

Lieutenant–Commander Balfour gained fame as an artist in pre–war days. Since the first week of the war he has been employed at the Admiralty, and is believed to have been on his way to his home at West Chiltington, Sussex, when the accident occurred.

His marriage to Miss Deirdre Hart–Davis was one of the romances of 1930. Miss Hart–Davis was regarded as one of the most beautiful debutants of 1928.

Mrs Balfour is in America with their two daughters, aged ten and five.

Thus, even at his death, his fame as an artist was eclipsed by that of the glamorous Miss Deirdre Hart–Davis.

Deirdre Balfour survived her husband by many years, marrying three other husbands after RB, and dying from Parkinson’s disease in 1999.


Note 1. See the articles by Martin Steenson published in Studies in Illustration, Issue 31/32, p.34–37 (Imaginative Book Illustration Society, Winter 2005/Spring 2006) and Issue 36, p.23–25 (IBIS Summer 2007), with the input from Nicolas Barker in Issue 34, p.23 (IBIS Winter 2006). Some of Martin’s information in his second article came from RB’s daughters, though actually they could tell him very little, as they were very young at the time of their father’s death. My thanks are due to Martin for permission to reproduce here the two unpublished costume designs by RB featured in his second article (Figs.10a & 10b.)

Note 2. A good account of the Dazzle Ball can be found in The Pall Mall Gazette for 13 March 1919, p.5 col.3, with another in The Sketch for 26 March 1919 (p.20), the latter containing the cartoon shown in Fig.1f.

Note 3. The National Archives’ Reference ADM/337/119/676.

Note 4. As in the Nicolas Barker input cited in note 1.

Note 5. This from the second article by Martin Steenson, cited in note 1.

Note 6. Thin Air was actually an account of a Himalayan Adventure undertaken by an American married couple, Guy and Constance Jones (née Bridges.) This was her first book, which she chose to publish under her maiden name, but she later published others under her married name, with her husband, Guy: Peabody’s Mermaid (1946) and There was a Little Man (1948), for example. The latter was made into a film under the title of “The Luck of the Irish” in 1948.

Note 7. The Rubaiyat illustrations are those facing quatrains 1, 43 & 65. The V&A also have a pen and ink drawing of “a girl in eastern costume standing against a decorative background” and a pencil drawing of “a woman in the costume of c.1912 with a large hat and hobble skirt which make her appear like a fish”, neither of which is dated, unfortunately. (No images available.)

Note 8. Rupert Hart–Davis The Power of Chance (1991), p.135, where he also gives a more detailed account of the car accident in which RB died. He mentions RB’s marriage to Deirdre on p.43, and the house in West Chiltington on p.96, but curiously, he makes no reference to RB’s artistic career, or to any involvement in costume / dress design, for Fox Films or otherwise.



My thanks are due to Roger Paas, Fred Diba, Sandra Mason & Bill Martin, and Joe Howard for proof reading this article, and for making many helpful suggestions in the process.


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