In the years following Edward Fitzgerald’s translation and publication of the first edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, artists such as Edmund Dulac, Willy Pogány, Frank Brangwyn, René Bull and many others were inspired by its lyric imagery, yet as far as I know no one has ever published a volume with an illustration for each verse. I first read them when still a child, and they’ve haunted me ever since. Six years ago I began new paintings with the idea of creating a book illustrating all seventy-five quatrains of Fitzgerald’s magical first edition. Some pages were planned as cut out ‘doorways’ through which one would see first the painting (partly obscured), and then, when the page was turned to fully reveal the illustration, the doorway framing the verse on the facing page. Two thirds of the way through I was advised that the project was too expensive to be practical; it would never find a publisher as there were so many illustrated versions around already, many out of copyright. I carried on for a while but other things intervened and I decided to put the project to one side and return to it later with a clear mind.
In the meantime I wrote and published two novels under the pen name of Nell Grey – The Golden Web and its sequel, Three Magic Women – and continued my study of all things esoteric – a lifelong source of inspiration, sustenance and fascination. But the Rubáiyát were still at the back of my mind, and when after three years I looked again at the work I’d completed, I was amazed to see parallels with tarot imagery that I hadn’t been aware of when painting.
The seed of an idea began to grow. Might it be possible to create a deck of tarot cards using the illustrations? Research uncovered an obstacle that seemed to make this inadvisable – the Islamic instruction against divination – but further research into the possible origins of the tarot and other fortune-telling cards in ancient Persia seemed to reveal a contradiction. I knew I needed more paintings to finish illustrating the seventy-five verses, yet was hesitant to develop the tarot imagery further. A decision had to be made, and a solution arrived in my head like a magic gift.
The Mystic Rubáiyát is a set of seventy-five cards - one for each of the seventy-five verses. The appropriate quatrain appears below every illustration and in each of the decorated doorways, providing a two-fold key to meditation. The fact that scholars have argued for decades as to whether Omar intended the Rubáiyát to be read literally or spiritually need not detract from contemplation of this blending of words and images; coincidentally, some of my images are literal and others could only be described as open to spiritual interpretation. Fitzgerald himself took Omar’s verses as inspiration for creative translation, subtly making of the work of the astronomer-poet of eleventh century Persia a rare and precious hybrid of East and West, and whatever your beliefs it’s impossible to read them without being touched by the element of mysterious and mystical beauty that the words evoke. The cards have been a labour of love; one day perhaps, the originally-planned book with its cut-out doorways will be published, but The Mystic Rubáiyát is, as far as I know, the first time Edward Fitzgerald’s lyrical rendering into English of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát has been published as cards of any kind. I hope they prove a doorway to beauty, insight and self-knowledge.
After studying at what was then Brighton Polytechnic, Pen lived and worked in Southern Africa, where she specialized in studies of tribal Africans and the indigenous wildlife, as well as teaching pottery. Returning overland to Sussex via India, Afghanistan and Europe, a journey lasting six months, she resumed her study of art, etching, lithography and silk screen printing at the University of Brighton whilst exhibiting regularly both locally and in London and Birmingham. She was a member of the National Acrylic Painters Association and the Association of Sussex Artists for many years, and has exhibited with the Society of Women Artists and in various open exhibitions. Her work is in private collections in America, Southern Africa and Great Britain, and her paintings have been published as limited edition fine art prints. Penelope works in a variety of media including oil, acrylic, watercolour and pastel, as well as etching and silk screen. Most of her work is figurative, a continuing concern being to convey the brilliance, colour, luminosity and magic of light. She is drawn to locations and occasions rich in life in all its kaleidoscopic diversity and is fascinated by those places where myth and legend, magic and arcane knowledge cross and mingle. This is her first set of meditation and tarot cards in what promises to be a lifelong journey. In her other incarnation as Nell Grey she has published short stories, poetry and the odd review as well as three novels: Solitary Pleasures and the magical The Golden Web and its sequel, Three Magic Women. One day her set of tarot trumps based on The Golden Web may be finished, or she may, yet again, be led astray on a completely different tarot adventure.
The paintings (only a small proportion of which can be shown here), were all created with acrylic and watercolour on paper, and with the exception of the image on the box lid, minimal digital manipulation. They are printed on heavy card, postcard size (10.5cm x 15 cm) with white borders and plain white backs. Each set of 76 glossy cards - 75 verses plus a title card signed and numbered on the reverse – comes in a plain black box with the Omar's Key image depicted at the top of this page on the lid. A silk square, aprox. 28cm x 28cm is included.
This unique signed and numbered edition is limited to 100 sets. Each set costs £75 including postage/shipping and insurance, and is available only from the Fig Tree Press website.
Payment via PayPal - order now to avoid disappointment!
Or by cheque to: Fig Tree Press, Fidra House, 47 Meeting House Lane, Brighton BN1 1HB, United Kingdom