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Hand-Coloring in Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One of the lessons we learn through the study of rare book provenance is that no two copies of an old book are truly identical.  Every volume lives its own life, and receives its own marks, scars, and brands as it moves from owner to owner through time and space.  Some marks of provenance are accidental, or at least incidental to the core content of a work, while others are the result of printers, booksellers, and owners making a concerted effort to add value to their books, to distinguish one particular copy from another.

If a book featured printed image plates, most often created from woodcut blocks, one common way to enhance the appeal and uniqueness of the work was to add color to the images.  In the early days of printing, this process would need to be done by hand, applying color to an already printed black and white woodcut plate.  The results could be quite stunning:

Uncolored woodcut of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497–98. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A hand-colored

A colored copy of the same print, thought to have been colored by Dürer himself.  Image from Harvard’s Houghton Library Tumblr.

The example above is a special case — most early colored plates were not done by the artists themselves, but rather were colored according to a printer’s orders, at the time of a book’s publication, or later at a bookseller’s discretion.  In both cases the aim was to add to the value of a work, to increase its appeal.  Book owners also sometimes colored items in their collections, much for the same reasons.

Books became cheaper and more widely available after the invention of the printing press, and in the process they lost some of their uniqueness and their charm.  In the print era many copies of a work could be churned out quickly with little variation between them, but hand-colored plates gave printers and booksellers a way to recapture some of the vibrancy and individuality of illuminated manuscripts from ages past.

Note

Hand-colored illustrations from our copy of Origine des Ornemens des Armoiries (XX CR151.M38 1680 c.2), a 17th century French work on heraldry.

It’s easy to find images of well executed book colorization online, and we have a few more here at MSU Special Collections (although nothing rivaling that Dürer print).  Most rare book libraries, however, don’t seem as keen to show off their less impressive examples.  Looking at the early hand-coloring usually featured on blogs or in library exhibits, one might come away with the impression that all colored plates are great works of art, or at least that they demonstrate a certain level of expertise or proficiency.  As in any endeavor, however, there are failures — examples of mismanagement, unfinished work, or all-around shoddy craftsmanship.

Take our 1530 copy of Georg Rüxner’s Anfang, Ursprung und Herkomen des Thurniers inn Teutscher Nation (XX folio CR4533.R8 1532), also called simply Thurnier Buch, or the Tournament Book.  The work presents a historical sketch of medieval tournaments in Germany from the 10th century to the tournament at Worms in 1487, providing information on the origin of the tournament and descriptions of the participants.  The book features a number of woodcut plates, including 41 images of various tournament activities and an additional 246 cuts of heraldic imagery.

Most of the plates are at least partially colored, although some of them, seemingly chosen at random, are not.  The book includes a number of duplicate images (appearing on different pages), and in each of these cases, only one of the pairs is colored.  This, at least, has a kind of logic to it — and for the most part, the color on these early plates isn’t awful, but it’s clear that the colorist was working with a somewhat limited palette:

HCW12

Click to enlarge.

HCW13

Click to enlarge.

The hand-coloring of these plates actually displays some level of competency, when compared to others in the same book.  Note that green and red crop up in odd places, though.  Was this an artistic choice, or the result of a limited color selection?  Some woodcuts from this volume take this preference for reds and greens to an absurd level, and demonstrate a general unwillingness to stay inside the lines, as well:

Note

There’s another issue plaguing some of the woodcut plates in our Thurnier Buch — a surprising number of images are only partially colored, and again it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the colorist’s choices.  Often only one or two figures in the image will be colored, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the colorist ran out of time, got bored, or simply forgot to go back and finish the job.

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In this particular woodcut, figures are colored seemingly at random.  The trumpets and the robes of the trumpeters received color, as did the gowns of two women in the foreground.  Three hairstyles are colored (brown), and a stick (or sword) in the background got a touch of red.  Most notably, perhaps, is that only the scene out of one window is colored.

Note

There is only one instance of color in this image, a touch of yellow applied to one man’s robe.  Why did the colorist stop here?

In many ways, our copy of the Thurnier Buch is like a 16th century coloring book — it’s as if a child was using this work to practice, clumsily applying what colors he had as the mood struck him.

When we dig a little deeper into the history of early hand-colored books, the clumsiness of this work become understandable.  Book collectors might be surprised to learn that printers and booksellers often employed children to complete the coloring process, meaning that essentially these early works were coloring books, of a sort — although they weren’t intended to be fun.  As this blog article from librarian and bibliophile L. D. Mitchell of explains,

[M]ost hand-colored plates were in fact not colored by the illustrators who drew or engraved the printed images, but rather were usually the work of an anonymous watercolorist who, more often than not, was a woman or child working in what was an early assembly-line process.

It’s unclear whether our Thurnier Buch was colored at the printer’s shop or in the collection of the book’s owner.  It’s certainly possible that the coloring is the work of a child, whether a young employee of the printer or the child of an early owner, but it’s also possible that it merely represents the unfinished work of an untrained adult book owner, someone who got bored partway through the coloring process.

It’s understandable that most libraries and book collectors aren’t keen to highlight these less-than-exceptional pieces, but I would argue that many of these botched coloring jobs are appealing because of their ineptitude.  They can be humorous, yes, but they can also teach us something, potentially giving us insight into the hand-coloring process, or connecting us to the past — serving to humanize those who contributed to this aspect of book history, and to remind us that pobody’s nerfect.

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An Artistic Edge: Selected Fore-Edge Paintings at MSU Special Collections

As we have seen time and time again, one can learn a great deal by examining the various marks in books.  However, this study of rare book provenance often focuses on the primitive, mundane, or even ugly facets of book ownership.  Libraries and personal collectors do not generally stamp or inscribe their books to beautify them or to add value, but to mark the items as their property.  And many people, having been born into a centuries-old print culture, see handwritten annotations and marginalia as imperfect human elements marring the otherwise mechanical orderliness of a printed text.

I do not share this worldview, but of course I am biased by my interest in the potential value of these additions as provenance evidence.  However, there are some marks in books to which I suspect even the most ardent biblio-purist would not object — marks interesting not only for their historical value, but also for their artistic merit.

Throughout the long and varied history of the book, writers, binders, printers and publishers have embellished the products of their craft in a myriad of ways.  Early Medieval manuscripts were often meticulously illustrated, and bookmakers have been tooling, stamping, or painting designs onto book covers for centuries.  Even in the modern age of machine printing and mass production, there is a great demand for artisan books bound, decorated or illustrated by hand.

One of the most interesting and uncommon forms of book art, the form I will be exploring below, is the practice of fore-edge painting.  These rare instances of book adornment are the result of painting a design or a scene on the front edge of a book’s text block (the edge opposite the spine).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting showing Norwich Cathedral. Found on MSU’s 1849 copy of Proper Lessons to be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer (XX BX5147.L4 1849).

Fore-edge painting remains relatively obscure, despite a recent revival in the practice, largely because the artwork is usually visible only when the book’s pages are fanned out.  In addition, most of these paintings (especially those from the 18th century onward) are hidden by gilded page edges.  Since fore-edge paintings typically remain invisible until the text block of the book is examined closely, and since each painting takes so much care and skill to produce, most people are unaware of this artistic tradition — even many bibliophiles and book dealers have never come across examples of these secret paintings.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Alternate view of Norwich Cathedral, from an 1848 copy of The Book of Common Prayer boxed with the book above.

Prior to the development of this art form, titles, shelf codes, or other identifying marks were often inked onto the fore-edges of books, so that the volumes could be easily identified when they were stacked on top of one another.  It is difficult to determine exactly when or where the practice of painting these edges began, although most scholars agree that the simplest form of “flat” fore-edge illustration likely became popular in late-15th or early-16th century Italy.

Regardless of the precise date the practice was invented, by the mid-17th century fore-edge painting had arrived in England, where bookmakers developed the technique of applying paint to fanned pages, so that the artwork would be hidden when the book was closed.  The practice continued to enjoy moderate popularity among England’s elite bookmakers and their patrons for a number of years, but by the end of the 17th century interest in fore-edge painting had waned, and few new works were created until the art’s revival nearly one hundred years later.

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU's 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

Fore-edge painting adorning MSU’s 1847 copy of The Seasons by James Thomson (XX PR3732.S4 1847)

The re-emergence of fore-edge painting as a popular art form in the late 18th century was largely due to the efforts of one English bookbinding and publishing company, Edwards of Halifax.  Although there were other fore-edge painters operating throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a surprising number of these artists did not sign their work, and it remains difficult to identify the creators of many paintings from this era.  Due to the sheer number of works that are traceable back to the Edwards firm, however, a great many unsigned pieces of fore-edge painting end up being attributed to them as well.

After the revival of fore-edge painting by Edwards of Halifax, the trade remained relatively popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.  A number of artists and bookbinders made their names creating beautiful fore-edge paintings, most often in the English style of “hidden” painting on fanned pages.  As the art form grew in popularity it evolved into more complex forms, and by the early 20th century paintings were even being done on both sides of the fore-edge (so that one painting would be visible if you fanned the pages one direction, and another if you fanned them the other way), on all three edges of the book (head, tail, and for-edge), or both.  Even in these elaborate cases the book’s edges were usually gilded, hiding all artwork from casual inspection.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges -- completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU's 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

This fore-edge painting is hidden beneath gilt and gauffered edges — completely invisible until the text block is fanned out. From MSU’s 1823 copy of The World Before the Flood by James Montgomery (XX PR5032.W6 1823). Click to enlarge.

The range of subject matter for these paintings also grew as the art form evolved.   Early fore-edge paintings were of mostly pastoral scenes, but by the 20th century artists were producing paintings for a much wider audience, and had to adapt to the current Zeitgeist and the ever-changing demands of collectors.  Vignettes included depictions of historical or mythical events, sports scenes, cityscapes, and more.  Of course, some fore-edge paintings were added by collectors themselves, and the themes of many paintings often matched the subject matter of the host books.

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train.  On MSU's copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

Crude fore-edge painting of a man on horseback and an early railway train. On MSU’s copy of The Principles of Mechanics by James Woods (XX QA807.W6 1824).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London.  From MSU's 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

A fore-edge painting depicting Regent Street, London. From MSU’s 1862 copy of Poems of Felicia Hemans (XX PR4780.A1 1862).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral behind.  On MSU's 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

Fore-edge painting of London Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral behind. On MSU’s 1816 copy of The Constitution of England; or, An Account of the English Government by Jean Louis de Lolme (XX JN117.L7 1816).

The renaissance of fore-edge painting in the 18th century by Edwards of Halifax pales in comparison to the latest, 20th century revival of the art.  Most modern artists, however, rather than adding their art to contemporary works, instead paint on the fore-edges of old books — often from the 18th or 19th century.  This can make it difficult to date a fore-edge painting through a cursory visual examination alone, and many unsigned and undated paintings can fool even a trained eye.  Worse still, this ambiguity is often deliberate, perpetrated with the intent to defraud collectors.

Thankfully the reputable modern artists seem to outnumber the fraudulent, and it is these known artists who are largely responsible for making the practice popular again in the 20th century.  Chief among these, at least in the first half of the century, was the prolific fore-edge painter Miss C. B. Currie, who produced a series of signed and dated paintings for Sotheran’s of London.  Martin Frost, another modern day fore-edge artist, produced a great deal of signed and dated work in the latter half of the 20th century and still creates fore-edge paintings today.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU's 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott's The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815).  Artist unknown.

Fore-edge painting of Stirling Castle, from MSU’s 1815 second edition of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles (XX PR5310.A1 1815). Artist unknown.

Even with the recent “second renaissance” of fore-edge painting, the art form remains relatively unknown and misunderstood.  However, a number of institutions, such as the Boston Public Library, maintain large, beautiful collections of fore-edge painted books from every era, and several artisan bookbinders working today still produce their own fore-edge paintings.

With the help of some outspoken rare book dealers and special collections libraries, this centuries-old trade is finally, slowly working its way back into the public’s awareness.  And I think nearly everyone — even those who would normally cringe at the sight of a marked-up book — can admire the products of this unique craft, tragically under-appreciated in the history of book arts.

Two scenes on a single fore-edge.  This painting only takes up half of the text block -- up to page 248 or so.  Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction.  From MSU's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

Two scenes on a single fore-edge. This painting only takes up half of the text block — up to page 248 or so. Another fore-edge painting can be found on the remainder of the text block if the pages are fanned in the opposite direction. From MSU’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (XX PR1181.S4 1839).

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559.  All together, MSU's copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

A pair of scenes from the other half of the text block, on the fore-edge of pages 249 to 559. All in all, MSU’s copy of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border features four scenes painted across two faces of the fore-edge.

For more information on the art of fore-edge painting, see the Boston Public Library’s articles on fore-edge painting and the website of modern fore-edge artist Martin Frost.  Also be sure to check out these previously undocumented fore-edge paintings recently discovered by Special Collections & Archives staff at the University of Iowa!  (original UI Special Collections Tumblr post here)

Does anyone out there recognize the artists of any of our fore-edge paintings?  Has anyone had a chance to see a work like this in person?  Leave a comment below!

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