Now you see it, now you don't: fore-edge painting
January 20, 2009
If you happened on Truths Illustrated by Great Authors: A Dictionary of Nearly Four Thousand Aids to Reflection...in our library you might notice the handsome binding and gilt fore-edge or outer edge of the book:
However, if you fanned through the book, glancing at some of the interesting quotations from Shakespeare and other authors, you would see the gilt edge above transform into a picture (thought to be from Stratford-upon-Avon) if you held it just right:
Fore-edge painting is the process of decorating the longer outer edge of a book then, usually, when dry, concealing it with gilt. It's a hidden treasure in a book and while some describe it as a lost art, others consider it 'pretty but petty.' The earliest examples date back to the 16th century but it wasn't until the mid-18th century that it gained more prominence. London bookseller and binder James Edwards (1756-1816) indicated he had a "method of binding books in vellum with drawings which will not rub out" in a 1785 patent application and even though he hadn't invented the process he became one of its greatest practitioners. The technique quickly moved from England to the rest of Europe (though several earlier examples may be found on the continent) and then onto North America in the 19th century. Fore-edge painting enjoyed a brisk revival in the 20th century.
Most of what is now known about the history and practice of fore-edge painting is thanks to a former Colby College Professor of English and Rare Book Librarian, Carl J. Weber (1894-1966). He received a donation of books with fore-edged paintings and began his research after finding very little general or scholarly work on the subject. Weber published A Thousand and One Fore-edge Paintings: with Notes on the Artists, Bookbinders, Publishers, and Other Men and Women Connected with the History of a Curious Art in 1949 and included a detailed list of fore-edge paintings in some 56 American libraries and private collections. He revised the work as Fore-edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration in 1966. Fore-edge painting became a family interest after that: a new book, The Fore-edge Paintings of John T. Beer is the latest by his grandson, Jeff Weber.
Which books did and didn't get decorated edges? There's no particular rhyme or reason to it, though if you look at the 1001 listings in Carl Weber's 1949 book, you do see multiple entries for the bible, Book of Common Prayer, books of poetry, and various classics. Where can you find examples of fore-edge painting? Again, Weber notes that while most libraries have no examples of fore-edge painting, there are many important collections around the world. The larger American collections may be found at the College of William and Mary, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. Boston Public Library also has a significant number of rare books with fore-edge paintings and has made them easily accessible on their website and on Flickr, the photo management and sharing program. In fact the wonderful thing about BPL's Art of the Book collection on Flickr is that you can see, at a glance, that the painting and the subject of the book are sometimes, but not always, in concert. For example, A view of Hampton Court Palace adorns this copy of the Iliad by Homer:
while other works by Homer have castles in Wales, scenes from Bath, England, and the Eton College Chapel. On the other hand, the Memoirs of the life and travels of John Ledyard contains this very appropriate scene (as Ledyard was a member of Captain Cook's expedition):
I was interested to find only one Masonic title on Weber's 1949 list, William Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, published in 1792. The copy listed, held in a private collection, had 2 fore-edge scenes painted, St. Paul's Churchyard and the Goose and Gridiron Ale House, noteworthy as the place the Grand Lodge of London began in 1717. Alas, our own copy of the same edition doesn't have any fore-edge paintings. I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows of other Masonic titles with this type of decoration. Given the amount of material published in the 18th and 19th centuries, the propensity toward decoration, and the interest in secrecy, fore-edge painting and Freemasonry would seem ideally suited!
Meanwhile, next time you pick up a book, particularly if it is old and has a beautiful binding, try fanning the pages. You may just get a nice surprise.
Sources consulted and mentioned above:
Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.
Weber, Carl J. A Thousand and One Fore-edge Paintings: with Notes on the Artists, Bookbinders, Publishers, and other Men and Women connected with the History of a Curious Art. Waterville, ME: Colby College Press, 1949. Online copy here
Weber, Carl J. Fore-edge Painting: a Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration. Irvington-on-Hudson: Harvey House, 1966.
Weber, Jeff. The Fore-edge Paintings of John T. Beer. Los Angeles: Jeff Weber Rare Books. Limited to 210 copies printed by the Castle Press, Pasadena, 2006.
White, William M. Truths Illustrated by Great Authors. London: W. White, 1852. Call number: RARE PN 6081 .W48 1852. Fore-edge painting of Stratford-upon-Avon.