SOME NOTES ON THE HISTORY OF THE OMAR KHAYYAM CLUB
The Omar Khayyam Club has existed since 1892, interrupted only by the First World War.
The first edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat was published by the London book dealer Bernard Quaritch in 1859. Only 250 copies were printed, and even those didn’t sell well and were quickly remaindered. Nevertheless, there were one or two enthusiastic supporters, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti., and 36 years later the poet Swinburne described in a letter to the Club how Rossetti had introduced him to the delights of the Rubaiyat:
“At that time the first edition was being sold off at a penny a copy, having proved hopelessly unsaleable at the published price of one shilling. We invested in sixpennyworth apiece, and on returning to the stall next day for more, found that we had sent up the market to the sinfully extravagant sum of twopence, an imposition that evoked from Rossetti a fervent and impressive remonstrance.”
When Swinburne used the word “invested” he cannot have had any idea how good an investment it was as a first edition was recently on the market for £28,000.
Increasing interest in the poem encouraged Quaritch to produce a second edition nine years later even then it was limited to 500 copies. All the same, enthusiasm for FitzGerald’s version gradually grew and one enthusiast was William Simpson, an artist working for the Illustrated London News, who in 1884 travelled from Tehran to Central Asia with the Afghan Boundary Commission, an expedition hoping to resolve a border dispute between Russia and Afghanistan. Their route passed near Naishapur, and Simpson took the opportunity to visit Omar Khayyam’s grave. Omar had told his friend Kwajah Nizami that his tomb should be “on a spot where the north wind may strew roses upon it”, and Simpson was delighted to discover that roses were still blossoming by the grave. He collected some hips and sent them to Bernard Quaritch, who passed them on to KewGardens, where the Keeper raised new plants from the seeds.
The late Victorian age saw a fashion for founding literary dining clubs and it was in the wake of that fashion that three friends, Frederick Hudson, Clement Shorter and George Whale met in 1892 and deplored the fact that they did not dine together often enough. Shorter was the editor of the Illustrated London News, and he went on to found the Sketch, the Sphere and the Tatler. Whale was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Chairman of the Rationalist Press Association and a friend of H. G. Wells. They agreed to dine together at stated intervals, and on 13th October 1892 they invited some friends to a dinner at Pagani’s Restaurant in Great Portland Street.
At that dinner in Pagani’s the Club was founded, and it was decided that membership should be restricted to 59 in commemoration of the year FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat.was first published. Pagani’s, which survived until the Second World War, became a regular venue for Club dinners. At one point the Club deserted it for Frascati’s, which is described as “a large and handsome establishment with winter garden, café and numerous billiard tables, but motor omnibuses having rendered Oxford Street unsuitable for the Club’s reflections it returned in 1911 to its birthplace at Pagani’s in search of quiet.” Starting in the 1930s the dinners were held at Kettners in Soho and they moved to their current menu of the Savile club in the 1970s.
Although Pagani’s remained the venue of most of the early dinners, it was the custom most years to hold a summer Dinner outside London, often at the Bull in Woodbridge in Suffolk, where Fitzgerald’s house still stood, there are also menus for the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, Skindle’s Hotel in Maidenhead, the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.
The most famous of these summer dinners was the Burford Bridge Dinner in 1895 when the President persuaded George Meredith, who lived locally, to be his guest, and who spoke in public for the first, last and only time in his life. The Dinner was reported at length, not only in the London press, but in papers as far afield as New York and Sydney.
Many of the Club’s customs which Philip Guedalla described in 1910 remain to this day:
The ritual is quite unchanging. A poem recited by its author, a drawing explained (where possible) by its designer, a Speech from the discursive throne, the search for something new to say about Fitzgerald that succeeds astonishingly often, and a respectful vilification of the guests – these are the simple ingredients of the Club’s evenings.
The membership in the 1890s included such writers as Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (the author of The Prisoner of Zenda), Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edmund Gosse, and the long list of guests was equally impressive, including G.K. Chesterton, A.E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Herbert Asquith, later Prime Minister.
The club is described in one early account as “both literary and bibulous” and another source says that “their meetings furnished excuses for rumbustious drinking and the composition of appalling doggerel”. Omar Khayyam dinners seem to have changed little since then.
In 1899 Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote the last of his comic operas entitled “The Rose of Persia”. By this time he and W.S. Gilbert were no longer on speaking terms, and the book and lyrics were written by Basil Hood, a former Army officer, who went on to write a number of successful West End shows. The plot, a piece of oriental fantasy with echoes of “The Mikado”, has nothing to do with Omar Khayyam, the “rose” in question being a Persian princess who pretends to be a commoner. However, there is an intriguing side to it. Basil Hood had been, at least once, a guest of the Omar Khayyam Club, and one wonders whether the idea for the title at least might not have come from that association.
At the beginning of the First World War it was decided to continue to hold occasional dinners, but only three actually took place, in December 1914 and in June and December 1915. No pictures or poems adorned the menus, and no guests were invited.
The Club has continued uninterrupted and unchanged in format ever since.