After the revival of the art of fore edge painting in the 18th Century by bookbinders like James Edward of Halifax and John Whitaker, this treatment of books became very popular. At the time book collecting was still a rich man's hobby. A book was often collected from the publisher or printer as a pile of collated pages and then taken to the buyers favourite bookbinder for finishing. Every gentleman of standing in society at the time would have a tailor, a cobbler, a vinter and a bookbinder with which he had an account. The binder would decorate the book to fit in with the previous books he had crafted for the clients library. This is why there is such a rich and varied amount of bindings for books from the same printing in this period.
To have a fore edge painting of one of your houses or a fashionable view was an expensive extra that was arranged by your binder. Unfortunately the painter was treated more as a jobbing craftsman than a professional painter and his work was very poorly paid. We know from other book publishers of the same time, that they even employed children to hand colour the prints of the books. Each child would sit at a table with a different colour on their paint brush and tint the print as it was passed around the table. The book was painted with a scene dictated by the binder and then the pages were gilded over the painting and the book bound.
Quite simply the reason that many of the fore edge paintings of this era are unsigned, is because the binders and book dealers preferred them to remain anonymous. If their rich clients started asking for specific artists they would have to pay them more. Worse than that if an artist was to become famous he could start setting his own prices for his work.
The turning point for the artists was to come in the late 19th Century when a method of painting a book that was already gilded was discovered. Suddenly the artist was free from the control of the binders and booksellers. Free to find their own commissions and set their own prices, keeping all the profits. Collectors would take them their gilded books and the binder lost an expensive extra to sell his customers. This was to lead to retaliation by some of the book dealers who started telling their customers that if a book was painted after it was gilded it was somehow inferior to books prepared in the traditional manner. A myth still perpetuated by some experts today.
Now fate was to take another curious twist in the story of fore edge painting. At this same time a new creative impetus was sweeping the country in the form of the “Arts & Crafts” movement. Its followers believed that every person could enhance their live by practising a traditional craft. Some of their leading spokespersons like Ruskin and William Morris held up fore edge painters of the early 18th century as examples of craftspeople who had continued a traditional craft from medieval times. Sadly they wrongly assigned the lack of signatures on these beautiful works as a sign of humility in the artists, who like their medieval forebears created art for arts sake and did not seek personal aggrandisement through their craft. A whole generation of Arts & Craftspeople were to adopt this romantic ideal and leave their works unsigned.
Fortunately through the example of Modern Day Artists like Martin Frost showing the way, many artists are now taking credit for and signi their works, enabling collectors of the future to gain a better understanding genre.
Unsigned Fore Edge Paintings
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3 January 2008
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