There's not a huge demand for lyric or ballad poetry these days, so at first glance it might seem strange that these two books are kept safely behind glass in our rare book room.
The poetical works of Richard John King or Adelaide Anne Procter are hardly well known, but these copies of their books are special. The fore-edges of each were painted in water colors before the gilt was applied. Here's the painting from the fore-edge of Legends and Lyrics:
King's Selections from the Early Ballad Poetry of England and Scotland is a double fore-edge, with two paintings. Fan the pages to the left or right and the art work appears.
The practice of marking the fore-edge of a book dates back to the earliest days of printing, reaching its peak as an art form in the early 1800s. Books such as William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye were highly successful, and the idea of the "picturesque" in art and landscape became popular with those Georgians who had enough money and leisure to travel outside of the cities to sketch the views.
It should come as no surprise that Lady Catherine De Bourgh quizzes Elizabeth Bennet about her drawing skills in Pride and Prejudice, as it was considered a social grace for a young lady, as were music and dancing.
Most fore-edge paintings, however, were the work of professional artists and bookbinders, rather than the product of Georgian era ladies who spent their days doing needlepoint, netting purses, and sketching.
Marist College has a large collection of fore-edge volumes. They've written a nice introduction to the art, and have posted videos of a fore-edge being opened. If you watch the videos, take notice of how the person wearing the white gloves has a difficult time handling single pages of the book in his/her hand. While white gloves are an effective visual symbol, they hinder a person's manual dexterity and increase the chance of damaging pages.
An excellent book on the subject of fore-edge art is Carl Weber's Fore Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration, published by Harvey House in 1966. While we don't have a copy in stock right now, several are available from other dealers.
So the next time you're browsing a book shop, take a few minutes to look through the older volumes, the dated poetry and essays. If you find a book with gilt edges, and the fore-edge looks sort of dull and dirty:
rather than bright:
It could be that you've found a special volume that is both a book and a work of art.