Poetry News

BBC Investigates Very Rare Rubaiyat

By Harriet Staff
Omar Khayyam

For the BBC's Culture section, Joobin Bekhrad invites readers to explore the poetry of 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, and in particular, an edition of The Rubaiyat encrusted with semi-precious stones made by bookbinders George Sutcliffe and Francis Sangorski. "With a desire to revive medieval traditions of bejewelled bookbinding, George Sutcliffe and Francis Sangorski were renowned throughout the city in the early 1900s for their opulent and over-the-top designs. Accordingly, it was to them that Henry Sotheran’s, a bookstore on Sackville Street, went to commission a book like no other," Bekhrad writes. From there: 

Cost, according to Sotheran’s, was to be no object; the bookbinders were given carte blanche to let their imagination go wild and conjure the most bedazzling book the world would ever behold. Completed in 1911 after two years of intensive labour, the book – of Edward FitzGerald’s loose Victorian interpretations of Omar Khayyám’s poems, illustrated by Elihu Vedder – came to be known as ‘The Great Omar’, as well as ‘The Book Wonderful’, on account of its sheer splendour. Gracing its gilded cover were three peacocks with bejewelled tails, surrounded by intricate patterns and floral sprays typical of medieval Persian manuscripts, while a Greek bouzouki could be seen on the back. Over 1000 precious and semi-precious stones – rubies, turquoises, emeralds, and others – were used in its making, as well as nearly 5000 pieces of leather, silver, ivory, and ebony inlays, and 600 sheets of 22-karat gold leaf.

Although intended to be shipped to New York by Sotheran’s, the booksellers declined to pay the heavy duty imposed on it at US customs. It was returned to England, where it was bought by Gabriel Wells at a Sotheby’s auction for £450 – less than half its reserve price of £1,000. Wells, like Sotheran’s before him, intended to have the masterpiece shipped to America. Unluckily for him – and the world – it couldn’t be taken aboard the ship originally chosen.

Learn more about Khayaam's poetry and about this rare edition of The Rubaiyat at the BBC.

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2018