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First Women Illustrators of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Alice Ross

March 15, 2023

Here is the second of Bob Forrest’s articles providing some more information on certain of the first women illustrators of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, who were covered in an earlier post by Danton O’Day – see In this article, Bob provides more background on the artist Alice Edith Ross, and discusses whether she can be correctly identified as the book illustrator Alice Ross. Our thanks again to Bob for sharing this research with us.

The Scottish artist Alice Edith Ross was born in Glasgow on 27 November 1863, the daughter of William Tait Ross and his wife Barbara Ross (née Whyte.) By 1881 she and her family had moved to Edinburgh where she was to live for the rest of her life. In fact, from 1881 until her death on 10 July 1954 she lived at the same address, 18 Glenorchy Terrace, Newington, Edinburgh. She was an active member of the Scottish Society of Artists (the SSA), exhibiting some 74 paintings with them between 1897 and 1936. (My thanks are due to Kirstie Meehan and Rowan Berry at the National Galleries of Scotland, for supplying this and other information used below.)

Figure 1

But was the artist Alice Edith Ross the same as the book illustrator Alice Ross ? Alice Ross is a very common name, but the first indication that they are indeed the same person is the fact that Alice Ross illustrated at least a dozen books for the Edinburgh publisher W.P. Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell which were also printed in Edinburgh, the city with which artist Alice Edith Ross was so strongly associated. The first edition of her Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, using FitzGerald’s first version, and with four coloured illustrations by her, was published by them in 1910 (Potter #77 – the date is on the title page.) But this was only one poetry book amongst several published by them, for, at various times and with various reprints and revised issues, with different covers and often undated,  she also illustrated works by Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, J.G. Whittier, Longfellow and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, not to mention the quintessentially Scottish poet Robert Burns. (Equally Scottish was the popular story about a dog, Rab and his Friends, by Edinburgh physician Dr. John Brown, an undated edition of which she also illustrated for Nimmo & Co., probably first published in 1912.)

Figures 2 and 3

To be honest, I don’t find Alice Ross’s coloured illustrations very interesting, for they are rather literal in their approach to the text – stolidly conventional art, in other words. Fig.1 shows her illustration of FitzGerald’s famous quatrain 11 of The Rubaiyat. Fig.2 shows her illustration of Robert Burns’s poem “John Anderson my Jo”, taken from an undated edition of Auld Lang Syne – Songs of Burns, but the copy used here bearing a gift inscription dated Christmas 1919. Fig.3 shows an illustration of Tennyson’s poem “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere” from an edition of Selections from Tennyson whose title-page bears the date 1908.

Figures 4 and 5

Alice Ross’s first illustrated book published by Nimmo & Co., seems to have been Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland which appeared in 1907 –  it was undated but the acquisition date of the copy in the British Library is 18 December 1907, and a contemporary newspaper advert shows it to have been issued as a Christmas book for that year. Her illustrations for this are more inventive than most of her work, perhaps not surprisingly given the nature of the book itself, though it has to said that they owe much to Tenniel’s original illustrations (Fig.4, Alice with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, is an example.) A few years later, again for Nimmo & Co., she illustrated Grimm’s fairy tales and those of Hans Christian Andersen – both editions undated but with accession dates of 1910 in the British Library’s copies. Some of these illustrations, again by the nature of the text, almost necessarily invoke more imagination – Fig.5 is “Little Ida’s Flowers” from Hans Andersen, for example.

Figure 6

But amidst the sea of colour illustrations she did for Nimmo & Co., I was much intrigued by Poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox with “pencil drawings by Alice Ross” published by them in 1912 (the title page bears the date.) The frontispiece, illustrating the poem “To Marry, or not to Marry”, is shown in Fig.6. This, and her other drawings, though still conventional in style, for me at least, hold much more appeal than her colour illustrations. But then she wouldn’t be the first artist who was much better in black and white than colour.

Thus far the Edinburgh connection, but that Alice Ross the illustrator was the same as Alice Edith Ross the artist is further confirmed by the following.

In the magazine The Gentlewoman on 4 March 1916 (p.34), under the heading “Studio Club ‘At-Home’”, we learn that “Miss Alice Ross, S.S.A.” was involved in a sale of paintings to raise funds for the Scottish Women’s First Aid Corps Convalescent Hospital. (Alice Edith Ross S.S.A. never married, so she would indeed have been a Miss Alice Ross S.S.A.)

In The Edinburgh Evening News on 12 November 1925 (p.9), under the heading “Scottish Women Artists – a New Exhibiting Society”, we read that “Miss Alice Ross” (no Edith) exhibited “a spirited study of donkeys and children” at the inaugural exhibition of the Society.

Finally, The Scotsman, on 5 January 1934 (p.7), reported that “Miss Alice Ross” (no Edith) sold “The Sheep Shearer” for £5 at an exhibition of the S.S.A. This is a clincher, because “The Sheep Shearer” is listed, as no.92, as one of the three works by Alice E. Ross of 18 Glenorchy Terrace, Edinburgh, in the S.S.A. Exhibition Catalogue for 1933 (the exhibition ran from 25 November 1933 to 6 January 1934.)

Thus it is well-nigh certain that the artist Alice Edith Ross was also the illustrator Alice Ross.

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