The Book of Common Prayer, with its disappearing fore-edge painting of the ruins of Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, is stored in the Special Collections section of the Glenn G. Bartle Library.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
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Beth Kilmarx, curator of rare books at the University Libraries, was going through the Special Collections closed stacks one afternoon last December when she came across an unusual looking book.
Kilmarx noticed that the book’s fore-edge, the side opposite the book’s spine, was a shade darker than the other edges.
“I saw the discolored gilt edge,” Kilmarx said, “and when I bent the leaves to find the cause of the coloring, I saw the painting!”
Kilmarx’s discovery is known as a single disappearing fore-edge painting. The painting was found on an 1818 edition of The Book of Common Prayer. Printed in London, the book was published by J. Cook and S. Collingwood at the Clarendon Press.
Aside from the book’s age, it is the watercolor painting that makes the book so rare. The disappearing artwork can only be seen by bending all of the pages at once, and then curving them until the painting appears on the edge of the book, Kilmarx said.
“When you look at the pages, the painting doesn’t show,” she said. “Sometimes there would be a painting on both sides, making it a double fore-edge painting.”
The painting shows the ruins of Byland Abbey, a scene centuries older than the book itself. Located in North Yorkshire, England, the Abbey was a prosperous religious foundation established in 1135.
Unfortunately, the person who painted the fore-edge is as elusive as the painting itself.
“There is no way of knowing who painted it,” Kilmarx said. “The painting was not normally done by the publishers.”
The uniqueness of the book goes beyond the disappearing painting. Kilmarx described the special detail that went into the decoration of the gilt edges of this edition of The Book of Common Prayer: The binding is red morocco with single gilt fillets on the front and back covers. The spine is in gilt compartments with the title stamped in gilt. Along the inside edges of the book are elegant gilt dentelles (decorative gilt lace patterns). The binding is not the original binding. Since the book was published in 1818, its original binding was probably a binding typical of that time period. The binding the book has now is typical of a gift book from the 1840s or 1850s. Gift books were almost always bound with red leather and had gilt applied to the edges. Such books often had elaborate designs on their covers. Since this is a gift book, it is not surprising to find a fore-edge painting associated with it.
Kilmarx is not certain if the painting is older than the new binding, but said, “I have a feeling when it was rebound is when the painting was done.”
Inside the cover of the book is a plate with the name F.H. Baker on it, along with his coat of arms. “Books back then were made to be one-of-a-kind,” Kilmarx said.
Kilmarx said she believes that the book arrived at the library when Harpur College was established.
“The founding faculty members went out and bought a phenomenal library (in order to establish the school’s library), and I have a feeling it was one of the original books,” she said.
The 200-year-old book is not the oldest one at the library. The oldest is a 15th century Petrarch manuscript De remediis utriusque fortuane, ca. 1440-1425 that was written by two scribes who most likely were from the scriptorium of Salvatorberg Charterhouse in Erfurt, Germany.
Both the manuscript, and the fore-edge painting on The Book of Common Prayer, can be viewed by anyone visiting the Special Collections department. The department is located inside the North Reading Room of the Bartle Library.
“No discovery like this has ever been made in our collection, and so this is one of our pride and joy,” Kilmarx said of The Book of Common Prayer. “ Hopefully it will not be the last. We have wonderful books that people can teach and learn from.”