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Bert Dodson, a living Rubaiyat illustrator

November 29, 2019

Over the past few years, thanks to the efforts of various contributors to the blog, we have posted information about quite a number of previously unknown illustrated editions of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  But few of the artists involved have still been living.  Now, Joe Howard has sent us news of a further illustrated edition of the poem which was created by an artist who is fortunately still very much alive and active.

JH dodson1Bert Dodson (Fig.1) is a prolific, Vermont-based, painter and illustrator who has illustrated over 80 children’s books. His many other achievements include, creation of the political comic strip, Nuke; design of the animation for the four-part television series, Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth (1999) and collaboration with biologist Mahlon Hoagland on the book The Way Life Works (Times Books 1995). Dodson is also well known and respected as a teacher. Additional biographical information can be found in refs.1&2 and a glimpse of his current activities is provided in ref. 3.

In 1990 Dodson’s Selections from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (not in Coumans) was printed by Publishers’ Graphics. It consists of 39 unnumbered printed plates housed in an envelope-like portfolio (18” by 13”) with “Rubaiyat” embossed on the front (Fig.2). The plates are a combination of 19 black ink drawings (Figs.3-4) and their associated quatrains; the quatrains being printed separately. At the bottom right of each drawing, the quatrain to which it refers is identified.

JH dodson2

JH dodson34 (3)

While these portfolios are rare, seven illustrations from them can be found in two of Dodson’s enduringly popular books4,5 on drawing techniques.  Two examples are:

JH dodson56

In these books Dodson also provides background on both his interest in the Rubaiyat and his process for producing his Rubaiyat illustrations:

“During a year in Spain, I read and reread Omar Khayya’m’s Rubaiyat, the epic poem about life, death, and fate. I made a series of drawings, putting together the verses of the poem with the decorative tile, wrought iron, and fabric motifs of the region… The realism and acceptance of this poem comforted me, and it was a rich source of artistic inspiration as well4.”

“Years ago, I made a series of drawings illustrating the verses of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. While they do not directly use the carpet format, they are clearly inspired by oriental rugs and other Middle Eastern decorative elements, such as tiles, railings and fabrics. I wanted to retain the patient, ornate quality of carpets or tapestry but with a freer, more spontaneous line. To get the right quality, I found some turkey feathers, which I turned into drawing quills. The ink line seems to draw itself. In a little more than a week, I made several-dozens of these drawings. I still like to draw this way occasionally – first creating big, loose shapes, then patiently filling them with decoration.

I can’t say that I fully understand The Rubaiyat, but I have always been attracted to its positive affirmation of life and its stoic acceptance of death. It seems a paradox that as we embrace either of these, the other becomes more available to us5.

The illustrations (Figs.3-6) clearly show that Dodson made extensive use of “Middle Eastern decorative elements”. Fig.6 is just one example where the whole illustration has the appearance of a rug. The links between the content of an illustration and its associated quatrain are sometimes literal. For example, Fig.3 contains a bird on the wing and Fig.6 represents the effect of wind on plants and seeds/leaves. Another illustration (quatrain 49: “T’is a Chequer-board of Nights and Days”) consists of a chequer board with people as the pieces. Other illustrations are very difficult to relate to their quatrains; see Fig.5 above for an example.

I contacted Bert Dodson some time ago with the intention of obtaining his insights into the relationships between the designs of his Rubaiyat illustrations and his interpretation of the relevant quatrains. Sadly, I have not received a response.

References

  1. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/30799.Bert_Dodson;
  2. https://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/fall09/html/bio_dodson.php
  3. https://www.vnews.com/Dodson-drawing-group-finds-models-through-Isabell-s-17229340
  4. Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson, North Light Books 1985, p212-213
  5. Keys to Drawing with Imagination, Bert Dodson, North Light Books 2007, p162-16

Many thanks to Joe Howard for sharing this information with us all.  We wonder whether other readers have copies of this rare edition of the Rubaiyat, and what their views may be on the style and meaning of Bert Dodson’s illustrations.  We should also be interested to know if anyone has had direct contact with the artist and so might be able to help Joe with his further enquiries?  Please comment below. 

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