A Very Rare--and Exquisite--Combination of Folio-Size Illuminated Manuscript and Morris-Style Embroidered Binding


([England]: 1904). 305 x 230 mm. (12 x 9"). [12] leaves.Translated by Edward FitzGerald.

BREATHTAKING CONTEMPORARY EMBROIDERED WHITE SILK, covers with leafy blue frame, central panel of upper cover with crewelwork depicting a Pre-Raphaelite-style maiden playing a lute or rebec, with swirling, thorny roses in the background and tulips blooming at her feet, lower cover with blue banner bearing the name "Omar Khayyam" on a background of rose branches, smooth spine with 12 lozenges outlined in green thread, each enclosing an ivory or gold lily, all edges gilt. Initials in red, green, or burnished gold, title page with small chalice and grape cluster in burnished gold, first word of text, "AWAKE," in large burnished gold majuscules. A breath of shelfwear to lower edge of boards, otherwise A MAGNIFICENT SPECIMEN IN OUTSTANDING CONDITION, SPARKLING INSIDE AND OUT.

A visual feast in both its text and its covers, this elegant manuscript interpretation of the perennially popular Persian poem in an exquisite embroidered binding is the apotheosis of Arts & Crafts handwork. Relying entirely on lettering rather than on illustration for its beauty, the manuscript is lovely in its purity and simplicity, like the austere Doves Press books of Cobden-Sanderson, rather than the gloriously illustrated Kelmscott Press books of William Morris. By contrast, the embroidery on our binding is full of swirling, pastel intricacy--though the musician on the front cover plays with a placidity that brings a serenity to the cover as a whole. Calligrapher Percy J. Smith (1882-1948) studied at Camberwell and at the Central School of Art, and became an instructor at Camberwell shortly after this manuscript was produced. After serving in World War I, he pursued a career as an artist, printmaker, book designer, and typographer, most notably designing the letterforms used to engrave the names of the fallen on Great War memorials, and producing a haunting series of engravings, "Dance of Death, 1914-18," based on his battlefield sketches. Our embroidered binding is unsigned, but the detail, the deft stitching, and the outstanding use of color mark it as the product of a skilled artisan and its overridingly feminine stylistic features suggest the work of a woman. Embroidered bindings rose to popularity as part of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century. William Morris' wife Jane and younger daughter May were primary players in this needlework renaissance, as was Jane's sister, Elizabeth (Bessie) Burden, who for a time was the chief technical instructor at the Royal School of Art Needlework. The design of our binding is remarkably similar to a stained glass window designed by Morris, "The Two Minstrels," now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, which depicts two young women said to be modelled on Morris' daughters, one playing a lute, the other a lyre. The lute player there is quite like the one on our cover in pose, garb, and physical features, and she is shown against a background of swirling, leafy vines. Needlework historian Dr. Lynn Hulse told us of the design's similarity to another stained glass panel, dating from 1872-74, donated to the Victoria & Albert Museum by May Morris (museum no. C.678-1923). In the opinion of Dr. Hulse, the composition of the design for the Rubaiyat manuscript could very well be the work of May Morris, but the stitching is less refined than her version of the minstrel with cymbals panel (ca. 1890) in the William Morris Society collection. We know that this manuscript was once owned by the Australian philanthropists and collectors Robert and Joanna Barr Smith, who were important clients of William Morris' London shop, and whose daughter Mabel was a school friend of May Morris. This provenance leads Dr. Hulse to suggest that the embroidery of our binding may have been executed either by Joanna Barr Smith, her daughter Erlistoun Mitchell, or her daughter-in-law Mary Barr Smith, all of whom were accomplished needlewomen and are known to have purchased several embroideries from Morris & Co. (see Anna Mason et al., "May Morris Arts and Crafts Designer" [2017] and Lynn Hulse, ed., "May Morris: Art & Life, New Perspectives," chapter 5 [2017]). This item was passed down through the Barr Smiths' descendants in the UK. It is rare to find either a modern illuminated manuscript or an embroidered binding of folio size, and to find them combined is an extraordinary occurrence and opportunity. This wonderful creation has clearly always been treasured as the special work of art that it is, its prior owners carefully preserving it from any traces of use or age.   .

Keywords: Orientalia