The Holy Bible ... Carefully printed from the first edition - compared with others - of the present translation. With notes by ... Thomas Wilson, D.D., Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man: and various renderings collected from other translations by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell, the editor. Bath : R. Cruttwell, 1785.

Fore-edge landscapes

Alice Rylance-Watson explores the practice of fore-edge painting – the painting of an image on the edge of a book.

The practice of fore-edge painting – painting an image on the fore-edge of a book so that it is only visible when the book is opened – reached the height of its popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One example is a three-volume edition of the Holy Bible published in Bath in 1785 which, according to the handwritten dedication within it, was owned by a Mary Johnson (née Robinson).[1]  She was given the set by her father-in-law John Johnson, a coalmining landowner, as a wedding gift to mark her marriage to John’s eldest son on 7 May 1818. John Johnson dedicated the first volume to the couple with ‘his most affectionate Regards…for their Peace, Comfort, and Happiness here and their Eternal Felicity Hereafter’.

The Johnson family seat was Arley Hall near Wigan, Lancashire: a property Mary herself was to occupy as lady of the house. This explains the prospect of Arley painted on the fore-edge of volume two: the Hall and Church are at centre, with the neighbouring towns of Standish and Blackrod to the left and right.

Fore-edge painting of Arley Hall in The Holy Bible, edited by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell

The Holy Bible ... Carefully printed from the first edition - compared with others - of the present translation. With notes by ... Thomas Wilson, D.D., Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man: and various renderings collected from other translations by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell, the editor. Bath : R. Cruttwell, 1785.

A view of Arley Hall in Lancashire is painted on the fore-edge of this 1785 edition of the Holy Bible

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The fore-edges of volumes one and three are painted with a visionary prospect of Solomon’s Temple and a perspective view of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. The artist who produced these three remarkable topographical views in miniature was Bartholomew Frye, a German bookbinder who settled in England in 1792 to practice his trade in Halifax, West Yorkshire, probably with the renowned firm of Edwards.[2] Frye’s original binder’s ticket is still affixed to the front flyleaf of each volume: a tiny pink sticker printed ‘Bound by B.Frye Halifax’.

It seems likely that Johnson purchased the Bible and then commissioned Frye to bind it and to paint the intricate views on its fore-edges. To do so, Frye would have clamped the Bibles in vices with their pages fanned, then painting the views watercolour. When dry, the edges of the book were brushed with a metallic veil of gilt concealing the image beneath. As a final detail he added miniscule labels at the foot of each view inscribed with the relevant place names – the Arley picture has three of these tiny markers. This is a rare feature which has not been found in any other contemporary fore-edge paintings.

A manuscript note accompanies the Bibles, inscribed with what is thought to be Johnson’s handwritten instructions to Frye. They include the notes in ink ‘[…] have on the edge/Solomons Temple/St Paul’s Church London’, accompanied with a small sketch in the same hand showing Arley Hall and Church surrounded by trees as it appears in the final edge painting.

It is unlikely that Frye journeyed to make the relevant preparatory drawings for this commission. He most probably elaborated Johnson’s simple sketch of Arley and relied on existing topographical prints for the other views. The market for engravings outside of the capital was buoyant, distributed via regional networks chiefly established by the leading London print-selling families of Overton and Bowles.[3] Henry Overton (1676–1751) and his relation by marriage Robert Sayer (1725–94) predominated the market for reasonably priced maps, prints and copybooks for the middle and professional classes (‘Merchants’, ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Shopkeepers’ etc.’)[4] With such huge stock, they circulated catalogues around the kingdom, enabling them to serve their clientele efficiently.

For his view of St Paul’s Frye adapted engravings depicting the building from a north-westerly perspective, a viewpoint popular among printmakers because it simultaneously showed the great dome and baroque towers at either side of the portico. One such example was published by Sayer after a design by J.M. Müller, another was released by Bowles and Carver in 1794.

Fore-edge painting of St Paul’s Cathedral in The Holy Bible, edited by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell

The Holy Bible ... Carefully printed from the first edition - compared with others - of the present translation. With notes by ... Thomas Wilson, D.D., Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man: and various renderings collected from other translations by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell, the editor. Bath : R. Cruttwell, 1785.

This fore-edge painting of St Paul's is derived from an 18th-century engraving by Johann Sebastian Müller

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

A North West View of St. Paul's Cathedral, London

A North West View of St. Paul's Cathedral, London = Vüe Perspective de la Cathedrale de St Paul a Londre. / J.M. Müller sculp. Johann Sebastian Müller, 1715-1790?, printmaker. London : Printed for & Sold by Rob.t Sayer opposite Fetter Lane Fleet Street & Henry Overton without Newgate. Publish'd according to Act of Parliament, 1753.

Depicting St Paul’s from a north-westerly axis was particularly popular amongst printmakers as Wren’s iconic dome and twin-towered west front could be shown to full advantage

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For the picture of Solomon’s Temple Frye simplified an engraved view of the inside of the Court of Priests published between 1706 and 1739 by Henry Overton. Sayer later re-issued a coloured version of this view.

Fore-edge painting of Solomon’s Temple in The Holy Bible, edited by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell

The Holy Bible ... Carefully printed from the first edition - compared with others - of the present translation. With notes by ... Thomas Wilson, D.D., Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man: and various renderings collected from other translations by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell, the editor. Bath : R. Cruttwell, 1785.

This painted fore-edge view is an architectural re-imagining of Solomon's Temple

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

An exact view of the inside of the Court of the Priests in Solomon's Temple

This imagined view of Solomon's Temple can be traced back to 17th-century architectural drawings by Juan Battista Villalpando

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Johnson was engaging the services of the very best of binders when he commissioned Frye. While there is no proof of Frye’s employment at Edwards of Halifax, it is likely that the German worked for them at least for some time upon his arrival in England.[5] The Edwards were a prominent and pioneering family of booksellers and binders, foremost in the country, with offices in London, Italy and France.[6] They single-handedly revived the dwindling art of fore-edge painting in the later decades of the 18th century and were the originators of many new techniques, including the painting of English country houses and landscapes on the fanned edge.[7]  Frye would have easily been able to procure the prints he needed or at least to source them ready-assembled from the Edwards’ portfolios. Their fine work and inventiveness earned the firm the patronage of many wealthy clients, who desired views of their own estates, the seats of great dukedoms like Chatsworth, or historical, religious and literary sites – all pictured in topographical paintings and prints – to be reproduced on the fore-edges of their books.

Frye delivered to Johnson a bespoke three-volume Bible, a luxury set which Johnson gifted to Mary as a memento of her marriage. And to induce her perusal, a playful reward: three topographical views rendered in minute detail, which appear with the correct turns of the text block and vanish under burnished gilt as instantaneously as they appeared.

For more painted fore-edges consult the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings at http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/bookbindings/

Footnotes

[1] The Holy Bible ... Carefully printed from the first edition - compared with others - of the present translation. With notes by ... Thomas Wilson, D.D., Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man: and various renderings collected from other translations by the Reverend Clement Cruttwell, the editor, 3 vol (Bath: R. Crutwell, 1785), British Library, C.188.c.17.

[2] See entry for ‘Frye, Bartholomew (of Halifax and Manchester)’ in Jeff Weber, Annotated Dictionary of Fore-Edge Painting Artists and Binders (Los Angeles: Jeff Weber Rare Books, 2010) pp.153–9 and Mirijam M.Foot, Studies in the History of Bookbinding (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1993), pp.238–40.

[3] Timothy Clayton, The English Print 1688 – 1802 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997) pp.105–6.

[4] See Robert Sayer, frontispiece and title-page to Robert Sayer’s New and Enlarged Catalogues, 1766, British Museum, London.

[5] Weber, Annotated Dictionary, p.154.

[6] Weber, Annotated Dictionary, p.108.

[7] Weber, Annotated Dictionary, p.109.

  • Alice Rylance-Watson
  • Alice Rylance-Watson is Transforming Topography Research Curator at the British Library. She is also a Cataloguer at Tate Britain, working on the sketchbooks, drawings and watercolours of JMW Turner.

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