The Albert H. Wiggin Collection

by Muriel C. Figenbaum

In 1945 Albert H. Wiggin began to form the fine collection of fore-edge paintings that upon his death in May 1951 came to the Boston Public Library. It is one of the largest collections in this country, surpassed in size only by the Estelle Doheny Collection which is housed in the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California, which is roughly twice as large. The Wiggin Collection contains 258 volumes, some of which are the unusual double fore-edge paintings, and is to the best of our knowledge the largest in a public collection.

The paintings done on the fore-edge of a book, and known as a fore-edge painting, is visible only when the pages of the book are carefully fanned, in the same manner as when the artist was painting the picture. When the book is closed the painting disappears under the gold leaf of the edge. During the course of the history of the fore-edge painting it was realized that after one painting was finished it was possible to paint another, fanning the book in the opposite direction and working very carefully. These are known as double fore-edge paintings. The work itself is done in water color, very dryly.

Carried on for the most part in England and passed on by word of mouth, little is found in writing about fore-edge painting and its history, but it is by no means a lost art. Fore-edge painting is being done today by Frederick R. Cross, an example of his listed by Carl J. Weber in 1949, is dated 1946. Mr. Weber’s book, “A Thousand and One Fore-edge Paintings”, Colby College Press, is as far as is known, the first book devoted to this subject. Cyril Davenport has attributed the invention of fore-edge painting to Samuel Mearne, who was royal bookbinder to Charles II from 1660 to 1683. Whether or not Mearne did the paintings himself or employed artists to do them is still a matter of speculation. The shift to landscape from the scrolls and heraldry of this early period came about one hundred years later and was developed for the most part by Edwards of Halifax, one of the most important names in the history of the book. The question of just who was “Edwards of Halifax” is ably discussed by Mr. Weber in the aforementioned book. He identifies the various members of the Edwards family, all of whom were interested in the art of the book. William Edwards was a book seller, bookbinder and publisher in Halifax, who sent his sons, James and John, to London where he settled them with a fashionable book shop. It was William who revived and developed the art of fore-edge painting perhaps as early as 1755, and invented two special types of binding. One is known as the Etruscan binding in which the calfskin of the binding has been colored by treating with chemicals. The center panel of the book is unusually decorated this way, and gives the effect of a growing tree. Classical motifs then surround this panel in gold or blind stamp. There are interesting examples of this type of binding which are coupled with fine fore-edge paintings also attributed to Edwards of Halifax in the Wiggin Collection. Among them is David Robertson’s “A Tour through the Isle of Man”, London, 1794, which has the typical “tree calf” inlay in the back and front covers. A finely executed fore-edge painting of a rural scene in the neighborhood of Miton Constable, Norfolk is under the gilt. Two volumes of Hector McNeill’s “Poetical Works”, London, 1901, are also bound in this manner, with fore-edge paintings on each volume, a view of Edinborough Castle and a landscape with Stirling Castle.

The other style of binding which Edwards developed is a cream colored vellum, often decorated with a painting. Either William Edwards or his son James invented a way of rendering the vellum transparent and the paintings were done under the vellum, enabling the colors of the painting to last indefinitely. Most of the paintings under the vellum are done in black or sepia, such as our copy of “Poems” by Mr. Gray, London, 1785. On the front cover of the Muse of Poetry is strewing Gray’s tomb with flowers, and on the back there is a scene described in his poem, “The Bard”, in which the poet stands on a cliff above the water playing a harp. The painting under the fore-edge depicts a bridge across a river with the tops of the buildings visible in the distance and the mountains in the background. Apparently the artist was inspired by the opening lines of Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” – “Ye distant spires, ye antique towers.”

Other examples of this type of Edwards binding with the fore-edge paintings are “Specimens of the Early English Poets”, London, 1790, with a painting of the house of Sir Thomas Claverings, Oxwell Park, Northumberland, whose name appears in ink on the fly leaf of the volume; “Poems and Essays” by Jane Bowdler, Bath, 1788-87, with a painting of a fort on a river bank with a sailing vessel in the foreground Trees line the bank on either side of the fort and a building and another line of trees may be seen on rising ground behind the fort; and “Poems” by E. Cartwright, London, 1786. The binding of this last-named book is contemporary white vellum with paintings in sepia under the covers of the binding. Etruscan borders in red and black within gilt borders, urns, and flowers in gilt. The fore-edge painting shows a country seat within an oval.

Of particular interest is James Thomson’s “The Seasons”, London, 1788. Here instead of the usual monochrome are designs in full color. The control design in the front cover is a circular medallion of green background with a figure of a man offering grapes to a child. Red and black concentric circles surround the design. Etruscan borders of gilt and green are on both covers and within the borders there is a floral design with ribbons and urns. On the back cover, in color, is the reclining figure of a Shepard with flute and a winged cupid with pipes. The fore-edge painting shows a lake with a small island in the center and at right a mansion showing its reflect in the water. This volume is considered to be one of the finest examples of the work of Edwards of Halifax.

Among the examples of the double fore-edge painting in the Wiggin Collection are two volumes of “Roderick” by Robert Southey, London, 1818. Volume I bears a painting of the “Gate House, Highgate”, showing a street and houses, and reversing the fanning of the pages, “The Tower of London”, with ships at anchor in the Thames River. Volume II offers “The Foundling Hospital” with street and carriage in the foreground, and “London from Highgate”, with houses and field in the foreground.

Also bearing a double fore-edge painting is “The Life of the Right Reverend Beilby Porteus, D.D.” by Reverent Robert Hodgson, London, 1811. One side shows a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Thames and the other a view of Chester Bridge. The volume is from the library of Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham, to whom, in conjunction with the Bishop of Lincoln, the book is dedicated.

An unusual example is seen in the two volumes of “Memoirs of the Court of King James the First” by Lucy Aikin, London, 1822. Each volume has a double fore-edge painting and three of the paintings are divided into two marking in all seven subjects. Volume I contain from the front, a Portrait of James I and a view of Whitehall from the River, from the back, a Portrait of Francis Bacon and a view of York Gate; volume II depicts from the front, a Portrait of William Shakespeare and a view of the Globe Theatre, from the back, The Landing of the Pilgrims.

Of special interest to the Wiggin Collection are the twelve fore-edge paintings after Wheatley’s Cries of London. Possessing a superb complete set of the thirteen stipple engravings done after Wheatley and also a unique set of porcelain figurines by Gwendelyn Parnell of these same subjects, the addition of these fore-edge paintings to the Wiggin Collection enlarges a fascinating subject. The paintings are in the two volumes of William Cowper’s “Poems”, London, 1820, each volume bearing a double fore-edge painting, and each painting divided into three finely executed subjects.

Considered the finest book in the collection, not only because of the painting itself, but for the binding and the provenance is the “Dictionnaire Greco-Francais, Composé sur l’ouvrage intitulé Thesaurus Linguae Graecee de Henri Etienne, Nouvelle Edition”, Paris, Le Mormant, 1817, which at one time belonged to Napoleon III. A full description follows: The book is bound in original red straight-grained morocco, richly gilt and blind-tooled. The sides are decorated with a broad gold border of flowers and leaves. Next to this, between gilt rules, is a border in blind in the romantic style. There are four gilt ornaments in the corners. In the middle of each cover is a gilt decorated shield in the center of which, on the front cover, is a monogram “D & C”, and, on the back cover, a flower vase of roses. The spine is in the romantic style and consists of five panels tooled in gold and blind, with four raised gilt bands, and is lettered in gold. It has richly gilt doublures and green silk ends, which are surrounded with a broad gilt decorated border stamped on the silk. Under the gilt of the fore-edges is a charming, mythological painting, portraying a nude Diana, sitting with a handmaid by a lake, with two dogs and a sheaf of arrows, her bow and some dead game. Diana is resting against blue drapery. The background shows trees, rushes and sky. The binding is signed on the spine in gold by the binder, R.P. Ginain. The binding is its original red roan solander case. The size of the binding is 10 ¾ x 8 ½ inches, and the fore-edge, when extended to see it clearly, measures 4 ½ inches deep.

The volume originally belonged to the Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale and it is his monogram “D & C” that appears on the front cover. His signature appears on the first blank fly-leaf. the book subsequently belonged to Napoleon III and contains his book-label, an “N” mounted by a crown. This is printed in gold and shows that this was one of the more important books in his library, as the labels he used in the less important books were printed either in silver or black. It also contains a bookseller’s ticket, “Truchy, Paris”. The Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale spent his early life in Italy, where he acquired a taste for the fine arts. He was Ambassador to the Court of St. Petersburg, and on the death of his father, in 1819, he became tenth Duke of Hamilton. He was lord high steward at the coronations of William IV and Queen Victoria. He had valuable collection of old books and manuscripts and it is probably that the book was specially bound for him and the painting executed at his request. It is believed that he presented the book to Napoleon.

Another item of interest in fore-edge painting is “The Plays of William Shakespeare accurately printed from the text of Corrected Copies left by the late George Stevens and Edmond Malone”, Morrell, London, 1823. A very interesting fore-edge painting embellishes the volume, depicting an actor in costume, with sword and shield in the part of Falstaff. The thickness of the volume, about two inches, allowed the artist to paint the picture with the figure of the actor standing parallel with the fore-edge, instead of at right angles to it. It is most unusual to find a painting placed vertically, the great majority being in horizontal position. The human figure is by no means a common subject in fore-edge painting. When it does occur it is almost invariably in the form of a small vignette, a bust or a very small figure in a landscape. The figure in this painting is approximately seven inches in height.

The collection also includes the three volumes of “The Bibliographical Decameron” by T.F. Dibdin, London, 1817, which contains several hundred beautiful woodcuts and engravings of illuminations, portraits, etc., and a fore-edge painting on each volume. These were done by Miss Daniels of Ipswich for Admiral and Mrs. Page and represent Volume I, a view of Lowstoffe (sic), Suffolk, and Volume II, a view of Harwich, Essex, and on Volume III, a view of Oxford Castle, Suffolk.

Representing the more recent fore-edge artists is Miss C.B. Currie, whose books are signed and numbered, but not dated. We do know, however, that she was active at least as late as 1920. She was employed by Riviere and Son, London binders, and began her career as a painter of miniatures on ivory, which were sometimes inserted in bindings. Many of her fore-edge paintings were on old books that were being rebound, and for a time they were not always in keeping with the subject of the book. A number of examples of Miss Currie’s books are in the Wiggin Collection, one of which is “A History of New York” by Washington Irving, published in London in 1821, under the pseudonym of Diedrich Enickerbecker. The two volumes have been bound as one by Riviere. The fore-edge painting is Number 85 of the books decorated by Miss Currie and is a view of the President’s House from Washington.

Among other interesting items is an old manuscript recipe book, decorated with a fore-edge painting, but containing hand-written notes. Robert Southey’s “The Curse of Kehama”, London, 1818, is decorated with a most unusual scene of India along the shore of a river with a Hindu Temple upon a high rock, palms in the distance, and a boat at anchor off shore. Two volumes of “Sermons” by the Rev. Thomas Gisborne, London, 1811-14, bear remarkably fine landscapes of Lincoln Cathedral and the Aylesford Church, harmonizing in color beautifully with the marbled end papers. There are a number of copies of the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, likewise decorated with fore-edge paintings. The Collection in its entirely contains many rewarding volumes of literary and artistic merit, with the added interest of unusual fore-edge paintings.