On “Readies” and Fore-edge Painting

In a New York Times Book Review article last month, Jennifer Schuessler quoted Bob Brown, an early proponent of electronic reading devices.  In his prescient manifesto, “The Readies,” Brown declared: “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age….  Writing has been bottled up in books since the start.”  Brown called for no less than a reading revolution: “It is time to pull out the stopper” and begin “a bloody revolution of the word.”

Schuessler wants us twenty-first century readers to understand that the iPad (see Past is Present‘s earlier post), Kindle, and other electronic reading devices are not only not new but also that protests against them are nearly a century old.  But the comparisons that are often made between imagined mechanical devices like the Readies and today’s e-texts, or between e-texts and the eighteenth-century cheap novel, become even more relevant when we consider that pressures industrialization led Futurists and others like Brown to imagine devices like the Readies.  Users of the iPad, the Kindle, or the e-text are inspired not by a Futurist desire to subdue the natural world but to make it portable, accessible, and easy.

Book of Common Prayer.  New York D. Appleton & Co., 1845.  Gilt fore-edge.

Book of Common Prayer. New York D. Appleton & Co., 1845. Gilt fore-edge.

Book of Common Prayer.  New York D. Appleton & Co., 1845.  Fore-edge, with painting.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, artists like fore-edge painters fought against the new cheap novel by embellishing books. They painted detailed watercolors on the edges of pages in books they had often bound themselves. When the pages of these books are fanned, the painting on the outer edge (or fore-edge) of each page reveals a picture.

The origins of fore-edge painting on the American continent are most often traced to the shop of William Edwards, a bookbinder, seller, and publisher in Halifax. William Edwards decorated the fore-edge of many works in his Halifax shop, including that of a Reeves Bible in 1811. AAS has a Reeves Bible published in 1802 that is decorated with a fore-edge painting. Could it be the one done in Edwards’ shop?

Holy Bible. London Published for John Reeves, 1802.  Gilt fore-edge.

Holy Bible. London Published for John Reeves, 1802. Gilt fore-edge.

Holy Bible. London Published for John Reeves, 1802.  Fore-edge, with painting.

Unfortunately, we have no way of determining the artist who created this work. Lauren Hewes, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, checked the Catalog of American Engravings, just to see if any work in catalog might resemble one on the Bible. At least that way, we might have some sense if the work was reproduced from another image. No luck.

Another question, though, might be asked by an expert in bindings such as Mirjam Foot (whose book you will see below in suggestions for further reading): why do these elaborate paintings matter to us? Before perfecting the fore-edge technique, the Edwards family copyrighted a transparent vellum binding to protect paintings underneath in order to protect their work from the wear of everyday handling of their bound books. Was the Edwards family simply out of touch, selling fine bindings to an elite population? Or was the Edwards family looking to find a way to make their books unique, and copyright them to boot? Either way, one wonders how a blogger would respond to a twenty-first century Edwards.

As a side note, while preparing this blog post, AAS “lost” one of its fore-edge paintings. As David Whitesell, Curator of Books, and I looked at Amira Thompson’s The Lyre of Tioga, David realized that Thompson’s work, previously cataloged as having a fore-edge painting, did not actually have one. Doris O’Keefe, Senior Cataloger for Rare Books, swiftly corrected the book’s record in AAS’s online catalog, which now sadly bears no reference to a fore-edge painting. A basic search of our online catalog for the phrase “fore-edge painting” as a genre/form will pull up the records for the few examples we know we have.

You can read more about fore-edge painting at the Boston Public Library’s website and the Lilly Library’s has an index of examples from their library by subject or artist.  You may also want to check out the following books:

Conron, John. American Picturesque. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Library, 2000.

Foot, Mirjam. History of Bookbinding as a Mirror of Society. London: British Library, 1997.

Weber, Carl J. 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: Colby College Press, 1949.

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