Fore-Edge Paintings: A Scene from the Nile
By Ryan Hildebrand
As many of our readers know, a fore-edge painting is a watercolor painting applied to the closed or fanned edge of a book. The earliest fore-edge paintings, perhaps better termed fore-edge decorations, predate the printed book, but the art didn't begin to take hold until the seventeenth century, when it is particularly associated with the bindings of Samuel Mearne, royal bookbinder to Charles II. Since Mearne's time, the art has been revived and refined by bookbinders such as William Edwards, an eighteenth-century fine binder and one of the best known and most highly skilled practitioners of fore-edge paintings, and Ms. C. B. Currie at the turn of the twentieth century.
The fore-edge painting shown here—a Nile scene—is one of hundreds executed by nineteenth-century English artist, poet, and bibliophile John T. Beer on books in his own collection. Of these only four are incunables (books printed before 1501), one of them being a recently acquired bible, which was printed in 1481, in Basel, Switzerland, by Johan de Amerbach.
It is rare for a collector to apply fore-edge paintings to books in his own collection. Most are either owner-commissioned or produced by anonymous artists in unknown circumstances. Beer's fore-edge paintings also deviate from the usual models in other ways. Because fore-edge paintings were frequently executed by binders, one comes to associate them with fine bindings. But Beer was not a binder, and his paintings adorn the text blocks of books bound in a variety of styles, some of them less than "fine." Nor was Beer a professional artist commissioned to decorate the books of his patrons. He decorated his own books simply for the joy of doing so.
The present volume sits well among the 60 fore-edge painted books already held by the Ransom Center, but it has value beyond its decoration. As an incunable it is of interest to historians of print. Its original binding of blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards, with two brass clasps, will be of interest to students of bookbinding. Also noteworthy are the manuscript fragments used as paste-downs in the binding structure (the practice is not unusual but is always interesting to encounter). As an early printed bible, it has strong context in the Ransom Center's collection of bibles and prayerbooks.
Beer, of course, was not the only owner of this book, which bears an inscription dated 1574. Many years later it was purchased by Edward Crawshaw in the 1903 sale of Beer's books. Crawshaw later sold it in 1920 to an unknown party. The book eventually made its way to Carlos and Patricia Lafuente, who in 2008 made a generous gift of the volume to the Ransom Center
For further information see Jeff Weber's Fore-Edge Paintings of John T. Beer, Los Angeles: J. Weber Rare Books, 2005.
Ryan Hildebrand is Head of the Book Cataloging Department at the Ransom Center.