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Object of the Month: September 2016

King James Bible, Third Folio Edition, 1613

Fore-edge Painting of “Caleb’s Daughter Pleading for a Watered Land” and “Christ at the Well of Sychar”

John T. Beer, fore-edge artist

ca. 1826–1903

On loan from the Collection of Jason and Ruth Speer

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The Collection on display at M&G has a wide array of objects—not exclusively Old Master paintings, but furniture, wood carvings, architectural elements, stained glass, and more.  The value of visiting a well-rounded display presents a broad view of the lives and cultures of people in the past.  As you visit, you begin to see how little a difference there is between us today and those hundreds of years ago.  Back then, the people had their innovative technologies, shortcuts, and battles with “old and new” just as we have today.

One such debate between the past and future has to do with books: bibliophiles who love the smell of a book and feel of its pages and others who prefer an e-reader or watching the movie instead.

Successful Victorian clothier from Merseyside, England, John T. Beer was most definitely a book lover in its purest meaning.  He demonstrated his affection for books, not only by collecting hundreds for his library but by decorating them too.

Unlike the spine and covers of books, the page edges are not usually decorated; however this 1613 Bible (on loan from a private collection to M&G) illustrates an obscure art form, called fore-edge painting revealing an image on the fourth edge of the book. Most often, this art is only seen when the edges of the book are fanned open at the appropriate angle; then, when the book is closed shut, the image is obscured.

These two Biblical narratives, Caleb’s Daughter Pleading for a Watered Land and Christ at the Well of Sychar are hand-painted by Beer. He is considered one of the most highly skilled artists of fore-edge painting and one of the most original thinkers in developing scenes to paint. He produced nearly 200 fore-edge paintings in his retirement years using books from his own collection, like this one.

According to Jeff Weber, who has collected data on more than 20,000 fore-edge examples and authored the Annotated Dictionary of Fore-Edge Painting Artists & Binders, John T. Beer is “the only fore-edge painting artist from the nineteenth century that is known by name.”

Bookbinders were primarily the artists applying fore-edge painting and commissioned by book owners; although some anonymous, yet professional artists embellished too.  So, “it is rare for a collector to apply fore-edge paintings to books in his own collection… [but] he decorated his own books simply for the joy of doing so,” blogs Erin Black from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Interestingly in viewing this large book, Beer beautified a Bible in his collection, which reveals some insights into the era. The religious complexion of Victorian society was varied; however, one uniting factor was the centrality and presence of Scripture. The stories, references, and allusions to the Bible were instantly familiar across the range of Victorian society.  This 1613 King James Third Folio Edition of the Bible provides an example not only of the era’s traditional values, but also the Victorians’ appreciation for literary and artistic skill.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2016