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First Women Illustrators of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Mabel Eardley-Wilmot

February 21, 2023

We recently posted an article by Danton O’Day, concerning the videos he has produced on 13 of the first women artists who were illustrators of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. For some of these artists, information on their lives and works has remained very limited. Bob Forrest has been investigating three of the artists, to see what more data he could find. We shall post the results of his research in three separate articles. The first, shown below, deals with Mabel Eardley-Wilmot. Our thanks to Bob for this information.

Mabel Eardley-Wilmot was born Mabel Boisragon Winter in Loughton, Essex, England on 18 January 1867, the daughter of William Henry O’Brien Winter and his wife Fanny Cheney Winter (née Hart.) The name Boisragon appears to have come from the surname of one of the witnesses at her parents’ wedding in 1861.

After the age of 4 in the census of 1871, Mabel seems to disappear from the records until her marriage to Sainthill Eardley-Wilmot in India in 1891. He had worked in the Indian Forest Service since 1873, in which field he achieved such a level of success in prudent management and conservation work that he was promoted to the post of Inspector General of Forests in India in 1903. He was knighted for his services in 1911, his wife then becoming Lady Eardley-Wilmot.

How the two met is not clear – it is not known whether she travelled to India in the 1880s, or whether they met in England when he was on furlough back home – but certainly they married in Lucknow on 12 December 1891 and two years later had a daughter, Mabel Iris Eardley-Wilmot, who seems to have been sent back to England to live with an uncle.

In 1908 Sainthill retired and they returned to England. From at least 1920 they lived in Tollgate Cottage, Remenham, Berkshire, where Sainthill died on 13 November 1929, aged 77. Mabel lived on in the same address until 18 August 1958, when she died in a nursing home in Maidenhead, aged 91.

Mabel’s claim to fame, of course, is as an early woman photographer, her photographs being used in her husband’s book Forest Life and Sport in India, published by Edward Arnold, London in 1910, shortly after their return from India. Of more interest to us here though is the use of 32 of her photographs in Sir Edwin Arnold’s book The Light of Asia, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London, in 1908; 40 of her photographs in Laurence Hope’s book Songs from the Garden of Kama, published by William Heinemann, London, in 1909; and, of course, 38 of her photographs in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London, in 1912, which used FitzGerald’s first version.

I have to confess that I am not much enthralled by most of her photographs, which are mainly landscapes that relate to various phrases used in the text, without any attempt to elucidate their particular context, and with little or no symbolic message, though they do make clever use of things like sunlight streaming through trees, or reflections in water, She does, however, feature some more adventurous symbolic content in a few – but only a few –  of her photographs for The Rubaiyat – the ghost images associated with quatrains 42 (Fig.1 above left) & 49, for example, and the moving finger image with quatrain 51 (Fig.2 right). In this last the shadowy finger has traced out the word “qesmat”, the Persian form of the English “kismet” meaning fate or destiny. (My thanks to Barney Rickenbacker for translating this.)

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