Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lost Artists - Ronald Balfour

At the website of that splendid publisher of the fantastic Side Real Press there is a feature on Decadent Illustrators which celebrates the fine Beardsleyesque illustrations by Ronald Balfour for an edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam issued by Constable in 1920. The languorous, intricate and erotic designs are remarkable for a young artist in his early twenties.

I chose a few of the designs to illustrate my essays on lost works of the Eighteen Nineties, presented in Wraiths and What Became of Dr Ludovicus (Zagava, 2014; new edition, 2015). However, as the Side Real commentary notes, very little seems to be known about Ronald Balfour.

As we have remarked before, lost artists of the fantastic are even harder to find out about than neglected authors. Indeed, in the absence of biographical information, the artist seems to be sometimes confused with Ronald Edmond Balfour (1904-1945), the historian. I am afraid I have forgotten now quite how I followed various leads to identifying a few basic facts about the artist, but this is what I found.

It seems reasonably certain that he is the Ronald Balfour who was the third and youngest son of Brigadier General Sir Alfred Granville Balfour, K.B.E., C.B., (1858- 1936) and Frances Elizabeth Simpson (d. 1936). An older brother, John, died in infancy and the second brother James was killed in World War 1 in 1917.

The artist, full name Ronald Egerton Balfour, was born in 1896 and died on 17 January 1941, apparently in a car accident. He had married Deirdre Phyllis Ulrica Hart-Davis on 24 April 1930, and they had two daughters, Susan Mary Balfour born 30 March 1931and Annabel Clare Balfour born 20 October 1935.

Balfour also provided “decorations” for Thin Air: A Himalayan Interlude by Constance Bridges (Brewer & Warren, New York, 1930). There is a suggestion that he may have accompanied the author to the Himalayas to make the illustrations. A copy of C.P. Skrine’s Chinese Central Asia (London: Methuen, 1926) has been catalogued with his signature, perhaps suggesting an interest in the region.

The Victoria & Albert Museum online catalogue includes the tantalising information that they hold a pencil drawing of a robot by Balfour, but it is not reproduced and they evidently have no further information about him. It would be interesting to know if this was intended for another illustrated edition. Capek’s R U R, which introduced the word ‘robot’ was published in Prague in 1920.

It seems unusual that Balfour apparently published no other illustrations than the Rubaiyat and the Himalayan book, and that so little seems to have survived about him. Perhaps there may still be fleeting allusions in unexpected memoirs, or designs in periodicals yet to be discovered.

Mark Valentine


  1. Hart-Davis is certainly suggestive. I may look around my Rupert Hart-Davis books to see if there's a mention of a Deirdre Hart-Davis. Without checking just now--I'm a bit drunk on wine because my old friend David Streitfeld is visiting and is now downstairs prowling through my books--I seem to recall that Rupert did have a sister. Whatever the case, the illustrations for the Rubaiyat do look very appealing.

  2. The story of Mr Balfour is certainly intriguing. It sent me down the Google rabbit hole for an hour or so, where I turned up a few tidbits. His alma mater, The Westminster in Herefordshire, published a brief obit in the July 1941 number of their magazine "The Elizabethan." It reads: "LIEUT.-COMMANDER RONALD EGERTON BALFOUR, who died on April 17th, as the result of a motor accident, was the son of Brig.-Gen. Sir Alfred Granville Balfour, K.B.E., of Durham Place, Chelsea. He was born in 1896 and was at Westminster from 1911 to 1914. During the last war he served in the R.N.V.R., becoming a lieutenant and hydrophone officer in 1918." And on a genealogy website called The Red Book of Scotland Project there is an entry under BALFOUR: "Ronald Egerton Balfour, born in 1896, and married at Westminster Cathedral, London, on 24 April, 1930, Deirdre, only daughter of Richard Hart Davis (The Scotsman, 25th April 1930). He was killed in a motor accident when on his way home to Gadd’s Meadow, West Chiltington, Sussex, on 17 April, 1941 (The Scotsman, 21 April, 1941)."

    1. I have written an article on him in Studies in Illustration 31/32 published by the Imaginative Book Illustration Society with additional information in issue 36

  3. Many thanks, Sean, that's useful extra information which also offers a few more leads.


  4. Intriguingly, I see that H C McNeile, better known as 'Sapper', the author of 'Bulldog Drummond' and other thrillers, lived (and died) in the same village as Balfour, West Chitlington, Sussex, and around the same time. I wonder if they ever met? And what would 'Bulldog' have said about those pictures eh?

  5. Perhaps Bulldog had a soft side and kept a copy of The Rubaiyat hidden in his nightstand. . . By playing tricks on the British Newspaper Archive site I was able to get around their word limits and read the entire obit in The Scotsman. It's brief but adds a couple of details. Since the first week of WWII he was employed at the Admiralty. And in July 1940 he sent his wife and two daughters to America to be safe.