The mysterious “Sem”

World, meet Sem. Sem, meet the World. Looks thrilled, doesn’t he? Well, you’d be a bit jaded, too, if you’d been hanging around the Folger for over 80 years, waiting for someone to finally notice you.

Sympathetic caricature of a bearded man, smoking, holding an oversize artist's pencil

Self portrait of the artist known as “Sem”

It all began February 15, with a reference question from a colleague in London, “I am currently researching two volumes of drawings by an artist using the monogram SEM,” wrote Marcus Risdell, the curator at the Garrick Club. Long story short, Marcus had figured out that this “SEM” couldn’t possibly be the French caricaturist Georges “Sem” Goursat (1863-1934) that all sorts of institutions’ catalogs—including Hamnet here at the Folger—said he was.

Marcus Risdell’s search had led him to some drawings at the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Library, in London. The caption “Sem’s Pantheon” appeared on two of these NPG drawings. That phrase, in turn, led to the Folger, thanks to a Google search that pointed to the OCLC WorldCat record for Folger manuscript W.b.94,  ”Sem’s Pantheon of celebrities of the day, 1876.”

Now, you might wonder how a cataloger could have mistaken the jaded man in the first picture with someone who was 13 years old in 1876. The answer is that she didn’t. [Nerdy details alert!] The woman who typed the original catalog card in the late 1950s transcribed what was on the title page, then filed the card by title:

Folger catalog card for "Sem's Pantheon"

Folger catalog card created in the late 1950s

The information on the card was later transcribed into Hamnet, with the addition of name and subject headings (the hotlinks that you can click in an online catalog record). The resulting record would have said “Main Author: Sem, 19th cent., artist.” So far, so good. However, it went off the rails when we ran newly-added records through “Automated Authority Control.” The computer algorithm should have reported that this person could not be found among the Authorized Headings used by American libraries. Instead, the algorithm matched our “Sem, 19th cent.” with “Sem, 1863-1934″ (pseudonym of French caricaturist Georges Goursat) and overwrote the heading. As soon as we figured that out, we switched it back.1 We still didn’t know who “Sem” was, of course, just who he wasn’t .

While Marcus Risdell continued the ‘Search for Sem’ in London archives, I headed to the Folger vault to look at the actual volume.  The call number indicated that it was in the manuscript collection, and the catalog said “62 water-colors of notable persons, accompanied by 56 letters, mostly addressed to T.F.D. Croker, and dated 1852-1877. Letters are catalogued individually.”2 Naturally, I assumed the volume was important because of the individually cataloged letters. For example, this letter by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Folger catalog card for the letter from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bound into "Sem's Pantheon"

Folger catalog card created in the late 1950s

A letter by Longfellow could be a scholarly goldmine! Then I read the letter. Fool’s gold. No commentary on his poetry, nothing about  literary figures of the day, just a purchase order for a book:

Dear Sir,

It was only this morning that I received the Causeries VII. which will account for and excuse my delay in sending the enclosed.  Please send me a copy of the Anthologie Grecque traduite en français, noticed in this volume.

Yours truly,

Henry W. Longfellow

If such a dull letter was worth typing up a set of catalog cards, then the not-card-set-worthy “also a water-color sketch of Longfellow by Sem” must be even duller. But instead… goldmine! A portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Uncle Sam, playing the banjo:

Caricature of Longfellow as Uncle Sam

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by “Sem”

The Shakespeare quotation in the lower right plays on the poet’s name: “A fellow in a long motley” King Henry VIII (prologue). Indeed, each of the sixty-three portraits (of fifty-six different people) has at least one Shakespeare quotation written on it.3 Several are also signed by the person portrayed. Each drawing measures about 23 x 14 cm, and is done in full color on blue-grey paper.

Who are these people? It seems that most or all are associated with literature, fine art, and the theater (exact proportion to be determined by a summer intern). Examples include James Robinson Planché (1796–1880), playwright and herald, resting against a stack of volumes representing his areas of achievement:

Sympathetic caricature of an elderly man dressed as a Herald

J.R. Planché, by “Sem”

Some people appear quite staid, like actor-manager Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905):

Sympathetic caricature of a plainly-dressed man

Sir Henry Irving, by “Sem”

Many are not so staid. Here is actor, playwright, and manager John Baldwin Buckstone (1802–1879) as Cupid:

Caricature of a middle-aged man as Cupid

J.B. Buckstone, by “Sem”

There are four women in the group. First come three actresses, one after the other: Mrs. Keely (1808-1899), Mrs. Stirling (1813–1895), and Mrs. Mellon (1824 – 1909). Then a little further on comes women’s rights activist, printer, and publisher Emily Faithfull (1835–1895):

Sympathetic caricature of a middle-aged woman

Emily Faithfull, by “Sem”

Based on the letter attached to the facing page, Miss Faithfull was a personal friend of the presumed compiler, writer and editor T.F. Dillon Crocker (1831-1912). Most of the fifty-six letters were addressed to Crocker, and he stars in four of the individual drawings (no one else gets more than two). In addition, he appears at the top of the title page, with a pen tucked behind his ear.

Three caricatured men around a sign reading "Sem's Pantheon of Celebrities of the Day"

Title page to Folger MS W.b.94

The letters were clearly inserted as tokens of the people portrayed, not for their actual content. So how did the volume come to be in the manuscript collection? Simple. At the Folger in the 1950s, only manuscripts and printed books were admitted into the queue for cataloging, and the volume was clearly not a printed book, so it was that or nothing.

Joining Mr. Crocker on the title page are James W. Lock, an art dealer in the Strand (holding up the sign), and Sem, the artist. But to return to the opening question, who is Sem? Marcus Risdell has uncovered enough evidence to show that he was professional illustrator Frederick Sem, born in France in the 1830s, living in London by the 1870s, and known simply as “Sem.” Clearly, more research remains to be done. At the very least, though, a Google search on ”Sem’s Pantheon” will now lead not only to the OCLC WorldCat record, but also to this blog post.

  1. My favorite incorrect matching incident was in 2005, when geographic place names suddenly replaced names of literary characters at the Folger, so  ”Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 –Characters –Constance, depicted” became  ”Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 –Characters –Konstanz (Germany), depicted.” []
  2. Being from England, but living in the United States, the cataloger split the difference in spelling: American for “color” and English for “catalogued.” []
  3. Although the catalog card said there were sixty-two portraits, there are actually sixty-three. []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Head of Collection Information Services at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Previously (from March 2000 through March 2014) she was the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections. Erin teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

4 Comments

  1. Frederick Sem is indeed more than a bit of a mystery. He is first found in England in 1871 when he is living at 160 Holborn aged 36 with a wife called Florence aged 20 who is stated to have been born in Dover. By 1881 he is at 25 Duke Street, Bloomsbury a widower aged 42 and is still there in 1891 aged 55, but shown as single. By 1901 he is Leon Frederick Sem and has moved to St Pancras aged 60, with a wife Clara and in 1911 he (still as Leon Frederick) is at another address in St Pancras aged 76, born at Sorèze (in the Department of Tarn), France, still with Clara who is also described as a artist and colourist aged 49. In both records Clara is shown as having been born in Dover and that they have been married for 20 years but have no children. There is no obvious birth, marriage or death records for them under these names, and the situation is only complicated by two death entries:
    A Susan Lawler Sem died in September quarter 1879 at St Giles (a district which contained Holborn) aged 28. In 1884 a Marie Julie Sem wife of Fred Sem was buried at Dover aged 34. Could either of these have been Florence? More research needed but trust this leads to more.
    Cliff WEBB
    As can be seen,

  2. I’m so pleased to have stumbled upon this story! I own two original “Sem” watercolours as well as several Georges Goursat images. I’ve argued for years that the two could not be the same…style and chronological age making this fact obvious.

    I would be pleased to forward copies of my images to anyone who might be interested.

    • Glad that you found The Collation post, Dustin! I’d love to see copies of your pictures, and will be in touch by email.

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