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Skulls

August 3, 2012

Skull by F. Sangorski

Sometimes, when looking for something, you come across something else that makes you forget what you were after. It happened to me the other day, in the Royal Library (The Hague), when exploring some publications by Stephen Ratcliffe on jewelled bindings. One of the titles deals specifically with jewelled bindings of the Rubáiyát, by Sangorski and Sutcliffe. For some reason the book in question seemed to be unretrievable, so I started browsing some of his other works. One of the bigger volumes is Hidden treasures (2008), documenting jewelled bookbindings in England between 1900 and 1939. To my surprise, chapter 5 appeared to comprise the (reproduced) account by J.H. Stonehouse, of the beginning and disastrous end of one of the most expensive and beautiful bindings of all times: The story of the Great Omar (1933).

‘Stonehouse’ is very rare, it is on my want list for many years, and a copy was sold on eBay recently for $ 500.00. Finding a copy of ‘Stonehouse’ in The Hague therefore was a happy coincidence. While reading I came across a passage where Sangorski is speaking to Stonehouse about his plans for the design of the binding that he was commisioned to produce. “He (Sangorski, JC) told me one day that he would have a Skull with a poppy growing out of it embodied in one of the designs”. We know now that this skull was inserted in the back doublure of the book.

This image of a skull embedded in a background of flowers (the poppy flower of death sprouting from the sockets of the skull, while opium-bearing seed heads adorning the borders) immediately reminds us of the image by Edmund Sullivan: the famous skull and roses illustration that accompanies quatrain XXVI. This edition, by Sullivan, was first published in 1913, not long after Sangorski finished his masterpiece. And I wondered, on that sunny afternoon in one of Holland’s most wonderful libraries, if Sullivan might have been inspired by Sangorski. The images differ greatly from one another, not only in style but in expression as well. And it is not clear whether Sullivan might have had an opportunity at all to see Sangorski’s work. One occasion might have been the auction where The Great Omar was hammered away at a disappointing £ 405.00 before being sent off for its last, fatal journey.

Skull by E. Sullivan

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 4, 2012 11:40 am

    What a fascinating idea! However we think that it has to be the other way round, i.e Sangorski influenced by Sullivan. This is because Sullivan’s skull and roses illustration was already in existence in 1901, when it was published in an article in The Studio. Our understanding is that Sullivan created many of the illustrations back at the beginning of the century for a illustrated version that never saw the light of day (see Sullivan’s preface to his first full edition of 1913). We comment on this in our paper in the 2009 Cambridge conference volume (* reference below, pp238-41). It appears that some of the Sullivan illustrations, including the skull and roses one, were also on exhibition as flat art early in the decade, so it is quite possible that Sangorski had seen and absorbed the idea as a possible basis for his own designs. It would be interesting to know whether Shepherds (the modern owners of Sangorski & Sutcliffe) could shed further light on this – or if anyone else has suggestions.

    * Poole A et al, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect, London, Anthem Press, 2011.

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