Fine Press Editions of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Part II

{Ed. Note: This is the second and final part of an article by Books and Vines contributor Dlphcorcl discussing fine/private press editions of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Part I looked at the history and background of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and introduced Books and Vines readers to several of the finest illustrated editions of the Rubáiyát over the past one hundred twenty-five years. Part II will look at the most spectacular edition of the Rubáiyát ever created, quite possibly the most (in)famous private press book of the twentieth century, a book often referred to as ‘The Great Omar’.}

The Great Omar

At the turn of the twentieth century Great Britain had several bookbinding firms creating deluxe bindings of superb quality and imagination for wealthy collectors.  The best known firms were Zaehnsdorf, Riviere and (George) Sutcliffe & (Francis) Sangorski.  Sangorski & Sutcliffe (S&S) were especially known for their extravagant and extraordinary jeweled bindings which they began creating in 1905.  The greatest of all was a binding for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám with the 1884 Ellhu Vedder calligraphy and illustrations.  It was commissioned and created to be exhibited, along with other beautifully bound books, by Sotheran & Co. in honor of the coronation of George V in June 1911.  Sotheran & Co. is the oldest antiquarian and fine bookseller in London and at that time Henry Sotheran immodestly proclaimed that he was “bookseller to the King”.  In truth, his pre-eminence and prestige amongst fine London antiquarian booksellers was rivaled only by the firm of Bernard Quaritch.  The binding took three months to design and over two years to complete.  It was bound in a dark green levant morocco and contained inlays of silver, satinwood, mahogany, and ivory and thousands of inlays of leather of different colors and textures united into an extraordinarily dense and complex three-dimensional design with sunken panels, all highlighted by the incorporation of 1050 jewels, both precious and semi-precious stones including rubies, turquoise, amethysts, topazes, olivines, garnets, and an emerald.  Each stone was placed in a gold setting which was firmly attached under the leather, making it almost impossible for the jewels to pop out of the binding.  Both front and rear outer covers and doublers (the inner portion or inside lining of the binding covers) were involved in the overall design.  The Great Omar was arguably the finest and most elaborate example of bookbinding craftsmanship ever created.  Upon completion, the binding was valued by Sotheran & Co. at $5,000 (1000 British pounds in 1911) and it was listed for same in their Coronation Catalogue of rare books.

During a visit to London in summer of 1911, a rare and antique book collector from New York City (NYC) named Gabriel Weis offered to purchase the book for $4,000. but his offer was declined.  Sangorski & Sutcliffe re-offered it to Weis for $4,500. but he declined and left London without the book.  Six months later Sotheran & Co. received an offer from a New York firm that had a customer willing to pay $4,200 and the book was sent to NYC in January 1912. However, a controversy arose upon the book’s arrival at port of entry. The New York Custom House officials insisted on using the initial value of $5,000. as listed in the Sotheran & Co. catalogue rather than the actual purchase price of $4,200 and they levied a duty of 25% on the $5,000. figure.  The New York firm and its buyer refused to pay the duty and The Great Omar was shipped back to London.  Unable to find a private buyer, S&S put the book up for auction at Sotheby. Unfortunately, their timing was less than stellar.  A coal strike in the United Kingdom had just begun, greatly depressing the British economy, effectively eliminating the vast majority of potential British bidders and buyers. Meanwhile, Mr. Weis in NYC became aware of the book’s inclusion in the upcoming March 9, 1912 Sotheby auction and he instructed his London agent to submit a bid of $3,125 with instructions to go higher if necessary.  He was surprised to find (and Sangorski was heartbroken to subsequently discover) that the book sold for only 405 British pounds ($2,025), well below Sangorski’s cost to create this magnificent jeweled binding.  Once again, The Great Omar was prepared for a trans-Atlantic voyage but the ill-fated book missed its initially scheduled cargo ship.  Days later, it was placed on board the RMS Titanic.  Four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to NYC the Titanic sunk on April 14 and 15, 1912 and The Great Omar is now resting peacefully upon the floor of the Atlantic ocean.

The curse of The Great Omar continued well after its untimely death aboard the Titanic.  Six weeks later Francis Sangorski met a similar fate, drowning while attempting to save a woman.  Unfortunately, he did not know how to swim.  Sutcliffe then took over control of the bindery and Sutcliffe’s nephew, Stanley Bray, joined the firm in 1926.  In 1932 Bray discovered the original designs for The Great Omar’s binding and over the next seven years began the ambitious task of creating ‘The Great Omar II’.  The binding was completed just as World War II broke out and The Great Omar II was then placed in a bank safe vault for safe keeping. Again, the curse of The Great Omar proved triumphant.  The vault was bombed during the London Blitz of World War II and The Great Omar was once again destroyed.  Many decades later Stanley Bray, who became director of S&S in 1936 after his uncle George Sutcliffe suffered a stroke, dedicated himself to creating a third version of The Great Omar shortly after his retirement.  Work was begun in 1985 using the original design as the template.  The third time proved to be a charm and the jeweled binding for The Great Omar III was completed in spring of 1989.  It is now safely ensconced in the British Library.

{Side Note: A marvelous collection of Sangorski & Sutcliffe’s jeweled bindings is in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.  Remember to click on each of the thumbnail images to see the binding in full size.  Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) it is one of the finest university libraries in the United States and a visit to their website will provide many hours of interesting and pleasurable reading. The HRC is especially noted for gobbling up large important private collections from both individual authors & poets and noted private collectors.  It appears to have assumed the mandate of becoming one of the most important national resources for documenting the cultural history of the United States in ALL branches of the arts and the humanities, becoming a major research resource for a wide range of scholars.   It is a national treasure and if you live in Texas and are either unaware of or have never visited and arranged a tour through the HRC, shame on you!}

The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát (1910) 

At the same time The Great Omar was being designed and created, Sangorski & Sutcliffe began work on their own illustrated version of the Rubáiyát, one they hoped would compare favorably with the 1884 Elihu Vedder landmark edition.   Sangorski’s older brother Alberto worked for S&S at that time and, surprisingly, he became a gifted illuminator and miniaturist in his middle age.  He started his employment career as a secretary to a goldsmith’s firm but at age 43 pursued an interest in calligraphy and the binding work of his younger brother Francis at S&S.  He joined his brother’s firm in 1905 , leaving it in 1910 to join their rival firm Riviere, and in his career produced several extraordinary books with calligraphy, hand illumination and illustration including Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Le Morte d’Arthur, Robert Louis Stevensons’s Prayers at Vallima, the Sermon on the Mount, separate books of selected poetry by John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe and William Wordsworth,  and last but certainly not least, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

The illuminated book took Alberto Sangorski nearly one year to complete and it was subsequently reproduced by S&S as a signed limited edition of 550 copies with an introduction by A.C. Benson, a distinguished essayist and author who served as the 28th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, from 1915 to 1925.   A chapter on the life of Omar Khayyam is also included.  The book was published in large quarto size (12.75 x 9.75 inches) featuring flourished initials in red and blue surrounded by gold floral decorations, twelve striking full page illustrations by E. Geddes in full color with gold borders, numerous miniatures and several decorations throughout in silver, red, blue, brown and black, highlighted in gilt.  The calligraphic text is printed in black and red on special hand made paper.   Similar to the signed, limited edition Edmund Dulac published one year earlier (1909), the binding was full vellum over stiff board with gilt designs on the covers.  A dark burgundy morocco lettering label in gilt was placed on the spine surrounded by gilt floral decoration.  The front cover featured the S&S trademark peacock in full plumage with swirling feathers done in gilt surrounded by an elaborate oriental design, all framed with a border of rich gilt floral tooling in an art nouveau style.  Decorative endpapers and gilt top edge provided the final touches.  All of this was done in Sangorski and Sutcliffe’s trademark style in the manner of the finest medieval illuminated manuscripts.

A handful of special editions were also produced.  Ten copies were printed on Japanese vellum and given special bindings in S&S’s grandest style – either a fabulous jeweled binding or a binding with the same green levant morocco leather used in The Great Omar with elaborate gilt and inlaid leather designs on the covers.  Additionally, an unknown but very small number (probably ten or fewer) of the 550 signed copies on hand made paper were also given special full leather bindings.  This book photographed for Books and Vines is one of the latter special editions.   It is bound in full green crushed levant morocco with elaborate gilt framing and floral corner pieces to each cover.  The front cover features a beautiful central device of the S&S trademark peacock with green, blue, ruby red, and tan leather inlays to the body of the peacock with an elaborate reticulated design for the peacock feather fan.  The rear cover has the same gilt tooling and floral corner decoration with a central device of a sunset done in blue and orange leather inlays with gilt birds in flight framed with chocolate brown only in the shape of an Oriental portal.  The spine has five raised bands with gilt titles and decorations in each frame and double fillet gilt inner dentelles with floral corner piece. Endpapers and free end plates are hand marbled paper and all three edges of the page block are gilt.  This particular binding was commissioned by Asprey Ltd. of London, the famous jewelers to British royalty.

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed.  A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Book Spine
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Book Spine
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Front Cover
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Front Cover
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of S&S peacock with inlaid leather and gilt
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of S&S peacock with inlaid leather and gilt
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Rear Cover
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Rear Cover
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of sunrise with birds in flight - inlaid leather
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of sunrise with birds in flight – inlaid leather
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Inner cover with marble endpaper and gilt floral dentelles
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Inner cover with marble endpaper and gilt floral dentelles
Colophon
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Colophon
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Title Page
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Title Page
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Calligraphic text with illuminated initial letter
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Calligraphic text with illuminated initial letter
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Illuminated capital letter - macro view
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Illuminated capital letter – macro view
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Opening page Quatrain One - recto
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Opening page Quatrain One – recto
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Title page opposite Quatrain One - verso
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Title page opposite Quatrain One – verso
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Calligraphic text with illuminated initial letters
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Calligraphic text with illuminated initial letters
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,  “…a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine…….."
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, “…a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine……..”
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,  Calligraphy with elaborate gilt designs, illumination and illustration
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Calligraphy with elaborate gilt designs, illumination and illustration
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,   “The grape….. the subtle Alchemist that in a Trice Life’s Leaden Metal into Gold transmute."
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, “The grape….. the subtle Alchemist that in a Trice Life’s Leaden Metal into Gold transmute.”
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,  Sample Text
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Sample Text
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,  Quatrain No. 59
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Quatrain No. 59
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát,  Rear colophon page
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Rear colophon page
Opening page to chapter on the life of Omar Khayyam
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Opening page to chapter on the life of Omar Khayyam
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of elaborate initial letters
The Sangorski & Sutcliffe Illuminated Rubáiyát, Macro view of elaborate initial letters

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