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More about Rubaiyats Illuminated and Decorated by Ross Sterling Turner (1847-1915)

December 15, 2015

Ross TurnerheadThis is the second part of Joe Howard’s interesting piece on the work by Ross Turner on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  See the previous post for comments on Turner’s edition of 1902;  the post also contains some information about Turner himself.  A portrait of Turner is shown on the right.  Joe would be grateful for further information and comments.  Please add them at the end.

Saint Dunstan Illuminated Edition: 1901

Potter (249) provides some detail on this edition, which was part of a set of 12 volumes, planned to be issued in 30 complete sets at the amazing price of $12,000 per set! Recall that the Great Omar was offered for sale for $1,000 in 1911 and did not sell. In addition to the “Rubaiyat”, the volumes included E B Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese”, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2 volumes) and Tennyson’s “Holy Grail”. The publisher’s prospectus states: “No two titles will be alike in typography, in illumination, or in binding.” and “The illumination will be done by Mr. Turner throughout.”

St Dunstan Rubaiyat 2It was intended that the different titles would be illuminated according to a School of Illumination that was appropriate for the specific title. The Oriental School was used for the Rubaiyat and this was described as:

“The Persian and Arabic form of Illuminated MSS. in its splendour of colour effects and superb design is not subordinated to the finest work of the Western Schools of Illumination. The Orientals vary in methods and forms of art expression; they note the absence of life in many Oriental MSS. Representation of the human figure are more than replaced by the wealth of magnificent design, which is the most perfect form of pure decoration known to us. The different manner in the use of gold in decoration by the Oriental Illuminator is marked, while many Western forms of Illuminated MSS. blaze with forms in burnished gold. The Oriental MSS. are equally splendid in dull or “mat” gold, effects none the less beautiful from an artistic point of view.”

An article Art of Illumination Revived in the Cambridge Tribune Vol. XXIV, No. 8, 27 April 1901, provides some interesting insights :

“The examples of illumination already completed by him [Turner] are extremely striking for their delicacy, invention, richness of color and charm of design. It is estimated that four years will be required to finish the work. It is done on parchment.”

“The St. Dunstan volumes therefore represent the revival of an abandoned art, and it is claimed that nothing to be compared with them has been produced for four centuries.”

Clearly the intent was for Turner to hand illuminate 360 volumes-surely overly optimistic/ambitious. This in fact proved to be the case. In fact Ross Turner did not even illustrate all the Rubaiyats. At least one copy was illuminated by Edith A Hibbs and another (no. 14) by A Formilli is currently for sale for $11,000. A “Publisher’s Proof” copy illuminated by R Turner was sold at auction.

Given the subscription price, I was surprised to see an auction record for a St Dunstan edition Rubaiyat sold for $60.00 in June 1916. The St. Dunstan Editions were continued with the complete works of Charles Dickens planned for 15 sets at $1,000 per volume. Unfortunately the publisher, George Sproul, found himself embroiled in controversy. There were accusations of unacceptable quality, volumes not delivered and subscribers who were unable to pay the subscription price, along with some legal actions. Some of these volumes were also resold for a fraction of the subscription price.

Garry Gerrard in his “A Book of Verse” states that just 22 of the planned 30 sets of the Rubaiyat were completed.

Rubaiyat set with stones: 1900

I recently came across very brief details of another Rubaiyat illustrated by Turner in A Cumulative Index of Books of 1900, compiled under the direction of M, E. Potter, H, W. Wilson Publisher, Minneapolis 1901. It states: Decorations by Ross Turner, Quarto, 60 pages, vellum, metal clasps, set with stones, $100.00, Bowles J. M. By comparing this entry with the style of other entries in the book, it appears that J.M. Bowles was the publisher. I have no other details.  Does anyone know more?


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