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The Collation

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.

  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.


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,

Cliff Webb — April 3, 2013

The plot thickens! Thanks for the information.

Erin Blake — April 3, 2013

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.

Dustin — October 1, 2013

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

Erin Blake — October 2, 2013

Great to find this discussion group. I was lucky enough to have, in the 1980s, purchased at auction a group of 20 original Sem’s PANTHEON drawings (each on card 9×7 inches) while working at the University of Kent, starting up the Cartoon and Caricature Study Centre there. The first of these has an inked inscription “Sem’s Pantheon – State’s Men”. I, and a previous owner have identified most of the figures, and I am delighted to have found a group with knowledge of this fine portraitist and caricaturist. To me, the faces and heads are true to life (obviously taken photographic images) while the figures are delightfully caricatured. I have sold one of the group to the NPG, and am cataloguing the remaining nineteen in order to offer them for sale. I would be happy to send the Folger a list.

James Schoff — December 11, 2017

Hi Jim. Enjoyed learning about your SEM interest and your possessions. I was eternally grateful to learn that the Folger, just a few miles from my home, contained this repository of SEM images but mostly the answers to who this obscure talent was. I’ve had 4-5 of the SEM originals for 25 years and have been on a constant mission to learn more about them and the artist. I’m looking at three of the originals on the wall in my office right now. Happy to send photos to you.
I’ll be in London on business during the 2nd week of January and am anxious to see the privately bound volume(s) of SEM watercolours at the Garrick Club.
Further…it seems that the artist focused mostly on theatre, literature, the arts, and a few political subjects…and all of them that I’ve seen are a very standard size. I have an outlier. A quadruple (approx) the average size SEM watercolour of W.G. Grace. I’ve never seen another sporting image by SEM.

Dustin Grainger — December 12, 2017

James! Apologies. I referred to you as “Jim”. Backwater savage American behavior.

Dustin Grainger — December 12, 2017

No problem Dustin, Jim is my “common or garden” name used by friends. I envy you your trip to London, and also your larger than life image of the great cricketer. I’ll send you details and images of my Sems later, but I particularly like one of Lord Derby fully caricatured as a winged lion strangling the snake of ‘vox populi’. Others include inventors (Faraday) and a nice one of Swinburne as the Wand’ring Minstrel from ‘Patience’.

Jim Schoff — December 12, 2017

Jim, Thanks. I look forward to seeing your SEM drawings. I’ll send photos of mine, once I get your email address. Mine is [].

Dustin Grainger — December 13, 2017

I have inherited at album of SEM, with what looks like scenes from Paris with carnitures inside. The front of the album has what looks like 2 black fish with 1 mouth & in a circle on the left is SEM.

Rita Bradley — July 30, 2018

It sounds like you have an album of caracatures by the the French caricaturist Georges “SEM” Goursat, the man Frederick Sem was long confused with. From your description, I believe it is the “Album 19” pictured on the SEM fansite at

Erin Blake — July 30, 2018