The Appendix recently published an interesting article by Sean Trainor about Lincoln’s beard – or whiskers, I should say – that got us thinking about one particular item in our collections.
This book is a nineteenth-century desk reference purporting to be “a concise and trustworthy compendium of the principal events of the Ancient and Modern times.” It was printed in London for the British and American market in 1867. There’s nothing special about the binding or the paper, and the title itself isn’t rare. In other words, this is one of the most boring books we own. Until you discover its secret.
This book has a painting hidden under its gilded edges, invisible until the pages are fanned and the book is read. It’s called a fore-edge painting, a technique which reached the height of its popularity in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Fore-edge paintings are often landscapes or scenes from history, mythology, or the book they decorate. Some also commemorate authors or historical figures, like this one. See uispeccoll's post on fore-edge paintings to see more of them.
We have about two dozen volumes with fore-edge paintings in our collections. Most of them, including this one, were the gift of Helen Jenkins, a Kipling collector who left her library to the University of Missouri in 2013.
This particular painting features a portrait roundel of a beardless Abraham Lincoln flanked by two American flags and surmounted by the eagle of the United States seal. The book is really thick - over 1,000 pages - so it’s hard to show the entire painting at once. But you can get a good idea of how it would have looked to a reader when the book was open.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his portrait appeared in countless books, newspapers, and broadsides, as well as on memorabilia such as mourning ribbons and jewelry. We find it interesting that in 1867 or sometime thereafter, with so many images of Lincoln available, the artist chose to depict the beardless politician from Illinois rather than the presidential figure we all know.