Fore-Edge Paintings from Jeff Weber Rare Books
By Michael Stillman
Some catalogues can be readily described as generalist, offering a wide range of unrelated material. Others are focused on a very specific niche. Here is a catalogue that qualifies for the latter group: Fore-edge Painting From the Seventeenth through the Twenty-first Centuries. This catalogue is offered by Jeff Weber Rare Books, and while Weber is generally associated with scientific and medical books, he is also a noted expert in the field of fore-edge painting. He has written several books on the subject. It was his grandfather who wrote what was once perhaps the only book on the subject. Undoubtedly, they are the only grandfather and grandson to write books about fore-edge painting.
Fore-edge painters have rarely received much credit for their work. Many of the top ones remain anonymous to this day. Most people would probably be stumped if asked to name just one fore-edge painter, though they could name dozens of artists. They toil in obscurity. Nonetheless, this requires considerable skill, painting details along the edge of a book being a bit more complicated than on a piece of canvas. If few achieved recognition, at least there have been a few collectors who appreciated their work. One was one of the most important collectors of the 20th century, Estelle Doheney, widow of oil tycoon Edward Doheny. Several of the works in this catalogue were once part of her collection, and you can be sure she did not collect anything unworthy of a serious collector. Now, here are some of the fore-edge painted books presented in this Jeff Weber catalogue.
Item 2 is an early fore-edge painting. It took almost two centuries after the invention of printing for someone to come up with the idea of painting images along a book's edge. The book is The Ladies Calling in Two Parts, a 1673 second impression of Richard Alletree's advice to the opposite sex. The painting is signed "E.C." and is dated 1673. Here it should be noted that fore-edge paintings are not always contemporary to the printing, many painters employing much older books. This one was evidently painted when new. It is uncertain who "E.C." was but a title page signature of Elice Christmas (or Chrishman?) may reveal the artist. The painting is that of some vines and flowers with a pair of angelic figures. Priced at $1,000.
Item 6 comes from the first English fore-edge artist to sign his work, John T. Beer. It is called "Departure of Terah, Abraham and Lot from Ur." Logically, it is painted on a copy of The Holy Bible printed in 1637. $5,500. For those interested in this 19th century fore-edge artist, one of the few from the era whose name is known, Mr. Weber has written a book about him which can also be ordered from this catalogue.
Item 23 is The Pleasures of Hope, and other poems by Thomas Campbell, an 1825 "new" edition. It has a fore-edge painting of Eton, a very old British school. This book was once part of Estelle Doheny's spectacular library, which included a collection of books with fore-edge paintings. She bought the book from Maggs Brothers in 1951, and like most of her library, it was eventually donated to Saint Mary's-of-the-Woods College. That college put up much of its collection for sale a few years ago to focus on its spiritual mission. $4,800.