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This fore-edge painting of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  The book is Poems by William Cowper, date 1811.A Foregone Conclusion: Fore-Edge Books Are Unique Additions to Ransom Collection

At the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, librarian Rich Oram is working on "the case of the vanishing paintings." Not to worry — there’s no cat burglar operating on campus. The paintings in question don’t really vanish, but they only appear when handled just so.

These highly unusual watercolors lie concealed under the gold on the edges of antique books. When the books are sitting on a desk, all you can see are the gilt edges. But when Oram tilts the edges at an angle and fans the pages, landscapes and city scenes appear as if by magic.

With a newly received collection of 63 fore-edge volumes from Houston donors Beth Gammage and her late husband Earnest, the Ransom Center now houses more than 90 examples of the craft.
The books were collectors’ treasures for Mr. Gammage, a 1939 UT Law School graduate. Beth Gammage remembers that her husband’s eyes would light up every time he found a new example for his collection, which he gathered from antique stores and book shows all over the world.

"They were his babies," she says. "Anytime he had the opportunity, he would show them off. He wanted to leave them for posterity and he decided to give them to UT because he was so pleased with the way the Ransom Center takes care of books."

Several of the volumes in the Gammage collection comprise the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. There is a travel guide to Italy with a fore-edge painting of scenes from Rome. Also in the collection is A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, bound with A Short Treatise on the Game of Backgammon and dated 1743. Signed by author Edmond Hoyle, the book has playing cards painted on the edges.

"These collector’s items are prized for their artistic value," Oram says. "The texts are not of great consequence for the most part. They are works of visual art."

Alexander Pope’s Poetical Works features two of Pope’s houses painted on a double fore-edge. On some of the more ornate books like this one, a separate painting can be viewed depending on which way you fan the leaves.

Fore-edge books have been produced for hundreds of years, Oram says, but their heyday was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in London, where a bookbinder called Edwards of Halifax specialized in the art. There are few written directions for this type of painting; it’s a technique that was passed along by word of mouth.

"Usually the images relate to the book, and in most cases we don’t even know who painted them or when they were painted," says Oram.

Sheila Allee

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