NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS FORE EDGE

Today’s guest post comes from the pen of retired librarian Tanya Barben. Tanya joined the staff of UCT Libraries in 1971 and retired from her position as rare books librarian at the end of 2013. Her interest in the history of the book and reading continues. She spends her retirement attending book launches, scouring through second-hand bookshops, as a volunteer for the Shine Centre, reading to Grade R school children, and as an editor and indexer.

NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS FORE EDGE

by Tanya Barben

Tucked away in Solander boxes on shelves in climate-controlled stacks within the University of Cape Town Libraries’ Special Collections are almost 200 hidden treasures. These are books with paintings on their fore edges (the side of the book that is opposite to the spine), some created with consummate skill by accomplished artists and others painted by amateurs (whose persistence is, nevertheless, worthy of congratulation).

Fore-edge paintings (FEPs) have a long history. The first FEP practitioner is considered to be a sixteenth-century Italian artist, working at the behest of a book collector. One of his successors in the creation of this conceit was Samuel Mearne, binder to England’s Charles II. But even before (and, in fact, since) the titles of books and the names or initials of their owners have been written on their fore-edges.

It was in the early nineteenth century that FEPs became popular among book collectors, particularly in Britain. UCT Libraries’ collection mainly comprises beautifully decorated calf leather-bound books of poetry (by, among others, Cowper, Byron, Scott, Thomson, Rogers, and Young), religious texts, and memoirs. Most of the artists are unknown, although in recent years FEPs by Martin Frost were acquired (Hannay’s Concordance of 1844, with painting of maps on the fore-edge and bottom and top edges, and an 1823 scholar’s edition of Horace’s works embellished by FEPs of Roam ruins).

The Libraries’ former binder, Eric Tucker, executed a beautiful view of the Upper Campus with Devil’s Peak towering over it on a copy of Herschel’s astronomical observations made at the Cape.

Some FEPs show scenes of the Cape (for example, the 1823 two-volume memoirs of one General Burn, which have a view of Table Bay on one volume and of Cape Point on another). In most cases, the painting has no connection to the text, although a delightfully appropriate exception is the FEP of William Hogarth’s Sleeping congregation on the works of the eighteenth-century ‘divine’, William Paley.

What, in fact, are these ‘hidden treasures’ and how are they created? Fore-edge paintings are decorations that appear on the fore-edges of books. They are created before or after the binding process and are painted using a very thin dry brush on the prepared surface of a fanned-out fore edge of a book. The painting is then coated with a mixture of egg white, alum, and water and (generally) gilded. The images are hidden when the book is closed and appear only when the pages are fanned out.

There are quite a number of doubles (that is, a different picture appears when the book is fanned out front to back and back to front). They are a marvel of human endeavour, and should be seen by anyone who believes that the book can also be an intrinsically beautiful cultural artefact.

The Libraries acquired the bulk of this collection thanks to the generosity of the late Commander Clifford Hall, a collector of books of great beauty and esoteric interest, many of which are to be found on the shelves of the Libraries’ rare books collection.