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John Millar Watt (1895-1975) – Another interesting Rubaiyat artist

February 5, 2020

It is fascinating to us how many new artists who contributed illustrations for the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are still being identified.  Joe Howard has sent us information about another such illustrator.  Our thanks to Joe for sharing the results of his research with us.

John Watt was an accomplished, Scottish-born artist who was raised in London. His early artistic education and his apprenticeship in an advertising agency, were interrupted by active service as an officer during WW1: appropriately in the Artist’s Rifles. He was gassed at Vimy Ridge.

On his return, Watt enrolled as a student at the Slade School of Art. While still a student, he drew sports cartoons for the Daily Chronicle and cover illustrations for The Sphere. The latter was founded by Clement Shorter, one of the founders of the OK Club of London. In 1921, Watt introduced1 his new comic strip Reggie Breaks it Gently, soon to be renamed as Pop, in the Daily Sketch. This was not only one of the first daily comic strips to appear in the UK but is also a rare example of a British comic strip to be syndicated by newspapers in the USA. Watt drew the Pop cartoons until 1949, when his work was continued by Gordon Hogg until 1960.

Watts was a landscape and still-life painter (oils and watercolour) and a member of the St. Ives Society of Artists and the Ipswich Arts Club. In the 1930’s he exhibited oil paintings at the Royal Academy

During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Watt contributed illustrations to many magazines, adventure stories, annuals, books and comics. In later life, he concentrated primarily on producing beautiful illustrations for Look and Learn, Princess and Once upon a Time. These sumptuously-coloured and very detailed illustrations, have been favourably compared with those of Rackham, Dulac and Heath Robinson. Examples of this work are readily available on the internet2,3.

JH Watt post

Of specific interest to Rubaiyat enthusiasts is Watt’s watercolour painting on board (280mm x 360mm) illustrating quatrains from Fitzgerald’s first edition (Fig.1). This was his contribution to The Arts section of the 1st June 1963 edition of the weekly educational magazine Look and Learn. In the magazine, the painting occupies a full page and four quatrains (1, 11, 14, 51) overlay it (Fig. 2). A short account of the history of Fitgerald’s first version, titled “POEM in the PENNY BOX”, is printed on the facing page.

Watt has produced a quite literal interpretation of these quatrains; the “moving finger” can be seen at the lower right, the moon and sun are shown together, the sun includes an archer on a horse aiming his arrow at the stars and so on. The colour differences between Figs.1 & 2, are likely due to a combination of the unstable inks used for the printed version and the paper now being over 56 years old.

This watercolour painting is currently for sale4 at a price of £1,850.


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