Thursday, July 1, 2010

Secrets of Edgy Book Art Revealed

[Voice-over, preferably by James Earl Jones]: "Who knows what lurks beneath the gilt on the fore edge of that book? The Bookseller Knows!" [Ominous dunh-dunh-DUNH music]

Actually, even a bookseller sometimes misses these cleverly hidden paintings, on what appear to be regular, gilt-edged leaves, until the book's pages are fanned open and the design is displayed. Thomas H. Horne, in his 1814 "Introduction to the Study of Bibliography," rightly gives credit to the famous Edwards of Halifax bindery for creating a "method of gilding . . . and decorating the edges of the leaves with exquisite paintings." The Edwards firm was founded by William Edwards (1723-1808) and continued by several of his brothers, half-brothers, and sons. Horne says that he has seen "landscapes thus executed with a degree of beauty and fidelity that are truly astonishing, and when held up to the light in an oblique direction, the scenery appears as delicate as in the finest productions of the pencil."

A fore-edge painting by Edwards of Halifax.

The first 35 years of the 19th century saw the first craze for fore-edge paintings, created by the Edwards firm under the direction of William and Thomas Edwards, or by the rival binderies Taylor & Hessey and Staggemeir & Welcher. Stately homes and ruins—whether classical or medieval—were popular subjects, as demonstrated in the Edwards fore-edge paintings, as seen above.

Willam Edwards' son Thomas (1762-1834) was likely responsible for many of the firm's fore-edge decorations, especially the even more elaborate double fore edge paintings, in which the fore edge hides not one but two paintings, one appearing when the leaves are fanned to the left, the other when they are fanned to the right. Weber says that of the 3,000 or so paintings that he has examined, only between two and three per cent have two paintings fully covering the same edge. He says further that only an extremely small number of such double fore-edge paintings were executed after the death of Thomas Edwards in 1834, since “the skill and time involved in the execution of such painstaking work, and doubtless the subsequent difficulty of obtaining adequate remuneration for the additional labor involved" militated against their production.

Split fore-edge painting from Johns Hopkins University Library Special Collections

The split fore-edge painting allows us to see both scenes at once when the volume is laid open at the middle, half the leaves on one side, half on the other. Obviously, this worked best on very thick books, such as the bible from the Sheridan Library at Johns Hopkins University pictured above.

Later in the 19th century, fore edge artists turned from stately homes and ruined castles to more natural, everyday scenes, such as views of docks or harbor fronts, busy with activity and enlivened by the presence of workers, as seen above.

Less common were scenes like the one shown above, which is unusual first in being a winter scene (bare branches being much more tedious to paint than green, leafy clouds of trees) and second the variety of of people and activites depicted. There are young boys skating for pleasure, a man chopping wood for his cottage on the riverbank, housewives going about their errands, laborers pushing sledges of goods, and frock-coated businessman conferring on the ice. The imaginative design, rich detail, and expert execution indicate an artist of the highest skill.

Fore-edge painting experienced a bit of a renaissance in the early decades of the 20th century, when two very talented artists were at work. The first was identified Jeff Weber (Carl's son and a fore-edge painting expert in his own right) "the Dover painter." This unnamed artist painted in the 1920s and 30s for the famous London bookseller Marks & Company, and his work was actively collected by one of the most important American bibliophiles of the time, Los Angeles socialite and philanthropist Estelle Doheny (1875-1958), who bought work imported from Marks & Company at Dawson's bookstore in Los Angeles. Weber estimates that approximately half of the very considerable number of especially fine fore-edge paintings in the Doheny collection in Camarillo, California, were done by the Dover Painter, whose fore-edge paintings are of the highest quality.

A fore-edge painting by Miss C. B. Currie

The painting above is by Miss C. B. Currie, best known for her role in producing so-called "Cosway bindings," decorative morocco volumes that contain inlaid (usually oval) hand-painted miniatures. These were first produced by the London booksellers Sotheran's from about 1909 until the 1930s. (The "Cosway" name apparently came from the first book given this special decorative treatment—G. C. Williamson's "Richard Cosway"—and it afterward has been applied to any binding like it. But that's a story for another post.) Currie produced about 1,000 "Cosway" miniatures for the Riviere bindery before her death in 1940. Her fore-edge paintings, by contrast, were far less numerous--in all just 131 known specimens. Called by Weber "a talented artist" whose paintings are "distinguished in more ways than one," Currie is the only fore-edge artist of any importance whose work is signed and numbered. She particularly enjoyed decorating older books, and often chose classical ruins and pastoral views for her subjects, a nice change of pace from portraiture.

Fore-edge painting is still being practiced today, most notably by the British artist Martin Frost, whose website displays many fine examples of fore-edge paintings and includes a short and informative video on the process. Another important resource for anyone interested in adding these delightful objects to their collection is the ABAA Collector's Primer to the Wonders of Fore-Edge Painting by Jeff Weber, son of Carl Weber and an expert on the subject in his own right.


Except where otherwise noted, images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.

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