A cautionary tale. Garry Garrard.
One of the most bizarre editions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to be published was drawn by an Indian Pharsee named Mera Ben Kavas Sett who, according to his publisher, became well-known as an artist and interior designer in Europe. His version was published in two formats.
Galloway & Porter, 1914
The best known is a slim book privately printed and published in a limited edition of 250 by Galloway & Porter, the famous Cambridge bookshop, in 1914. The 75 verses of Fitzgerald’s first edition are in a hand-written script on 15 single-sided pages, accompanied by ornamentation and drawings in Sett’s somewhat idiosyncratic style. Another 15 pages each have one of Sett’s drawings in black and white as well as a tissue guard page with the text of the appropriate ruba’i printed on it. Sett’s drawings are undoubtedly reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, although he denies that. The publication was financed by Sett’s father, for English publishers found the explicit drawings far too shocking for their readers’ susceptibilities, and Sett was not prepared to add the fig-leaves they required for decency’s sake.
Some years ago, I saw mention of a second version of the book in a completely different format - a series of unbound cards contained in a binder rather like a miniature artist’s folio. According to the source that I had seen, this was published in 1911 by D.B. Taraporevala of Bombay (now Mumbai), but I had never seen a copy.
I was delighted when I saw what seemed to be a copy of this card version for sale on E-Bay, and placed my bid with what I thought was a generous maximum, although on many occasions recently my idea of generous had not matched that of other collectors.
This time I was fortunate and a week or so later unwrapped my parcel. Inside was a green cloth-covered folder containing 30 cards and a 12 page leaflet with the text of the Rubaiyat and an introduction. The cards were unmistakeably the same designs as in the Galloway and Porter book, but with a slightly wider margin. Even more significantly, the 15 cards with the hand-written text per printed in two colours; the text was in green and the drawings and ornamentation were in dark red. Overall, the effect was far less like Beardsley than the Galloway & Porter book.
It was with considerable interest that I opened the leaflet to see what more information I could find. To my surprise it was almost immediately evident that it could not have been written in 1911. For one thing it started with a publisher’s note paying tribute to M.K. Sett’s achievements and leaving the reader in no doubt that he was no longer alive. And, in his own introduction that followed, Sett himself refers in the past to “two global wars, destroying the cultured middle and upper classes”. The earliest he could have written that was 1945, and he also refers to D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co requesting him to allow them to bring out a reprint. It seemed like another case of caveat emptor; apparently what I had bought was a reprint that was much more recent than the 1911 original. Even so, I was not too disconsolate, the book might be a reprint but it was still rare enough and I had apparently identified yet another edition.
It wasn’t long before I showed my new acquisition to a couple of other collectors (one of them the editor of this publication); they both had copies of the card version and seemed as surprised as I was at the apparent publication date of my copy. Before long I emailed them a scan of the introduction so that they could compare it with their own copies. I think we were all surprised to discover that all three copies were exactly the same, printed not in 1911 but in (or after) 1946.
The puzzle was obvious –where had details of the 1911 version come from? I knew I had originally seen it in an article or book somewhere but it took me a long time to identify where. I scoured all the material I had collected over the years without success, then remembered an article I knew I had used which seemed to be missing from my shelf. It had been published in an English publication called Book and Magazine Collector and had provided a good introduction to collecting Rubaiyats, especially illustrated editions. A visit to the local branch of W.H. Smith provided the most recent edition, in which there was a comprehensive index of the subjects of articles in back-numbers, as well as details of availability and ordering instructions. The copy I wanted, with an article on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was published in 1997. Back numbers of that edition were available so I ordered one with a phone call – delivery was not as quick as ordering, but eventually it a couple of weeks later. The article was just as I remembered it and there, towards the bottom of a table of “Collectable Editions of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”, was my original source which read:
M.K. Sett Edition (D.B. Taraporevala c. 1911) ……………….£ 60-80
The internet proved its value once again, and it took only a short search to find that the author of the original article was still in business as a book dealer in London, and was contactable through ABE Books. I sent him an email explaining our predicament; fortunately he remembered his article, he was extremely helpful, and he replied almost by return as follows:
"I have a set of the Sett... which looks to me older than 1945 and has pencilled on it 1912 from a previous owner. this I took as the basis for my c.1911. Roughly A4 cards inside a folding green case with gilt lettering. The booklet has rusty staples and, even allowing for Indian produced paper products aging quickly, it certainly has the feel of 1911 rather than post-1945."
That sounded very encouraging, so I soon sent him my scans, and asked him to send me his in return so that we could compare our copies. Alas, there was no need for that step, for his next email read as follows (I have not corrected any of the inevitable email typing errors):
"Having now read the intro to my set of prints i can confirm that it the same as yours and must be post WW2. The conclusion is then that there was no such c.1911 edition and the Bombay copies are all much later than the UK ed. Sorry to have been inadvertantly responsible for creating a ghost!"
You may notice that I have omitted the dealer’s name to avoid him unnecessary embarrassment, he had made a genuine mistake and he could not have been more helpful in resolving the mystery! We could call that the end of the story, but we can all learn something from the exercise: never depend on a single unverified secondary source of information, and glean every snippet of information that you can from the content of a book (especially the introduction)
As a final thought, purely circumstantial evidence suggests that a version on cards in a folder with an accompanying leaflet would have been quite consistent in 1911. The previous year, the first edition of the 12 drawings for the Rubaiyat by Abanindro Nath Tagore was published by The Studio in precisely that format, and things like that tend to follow fashion. However, it seems as though fashion and consistency can provide a mere chimera that we might all have continued to chase.
Garrard is the author of ‘A book of verse. The Biography of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Sutton, 2007
In: Omariana [821 KB] , Vol. 10, Nr. 1, Summer 2010