Art on the Edge
By Ken Koyle, Ginny Roth, and Krista Stracka
Hedley Vicars was not a war hero. He was not a renowned strategist or tactician; his presence on the battlefield did not strike fear in the hearts of his enemies. In fact, Captain Hedley Vicars was killed by a Russian musket ball during his first direct combat engagement on the hills in front of Sebastopol on March 22, 1855. If not for his friendship with the biographer Catherine Marsh, Hedley Vicars’ legacy would likely have been little more than a forgotten grave on a Crimean War battlefield. Catharine Marsh did count Hedley as a close friend, however, so when he died she was moved to immortalize him as a veritable Christian saint in a book that would eventually be translated into no fewer than eight languages, with hundreds of thousands of copies (plus a few plagiarized variants) printed and sold around the world from 1855 until the early 20th century.
The book Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars, Ninety-Seventh Regiment belongs to a literary genre known as “evangelical biography.” The main purpose of the book seems to be as much to convince readers of the piety, humility, and Christian faithfulness of its subject as to recount the events of his life. The book opens with a few entertaining stories from Vicars’ youth and his early experiences as a British army officer, but the author is obviously eager to transition to her real focus—his Christian “awakening” and subsequent devotion to Bible study, prayer, and proselytizing. The book quotes liberally from Vicars’ diary entries and letters he wrote to family and friends, incorporating dozens of complete letters transcribed directly into the text. These letters almost universally—if somewhat redundantly—proclaim his faith and rejoice in his zealous adherence to his gospel principles. In one passage he describes his daily routine, which included equal time dedicated to religious pursuits as to his work as an officer.
Interspersed among the pages of evangelical prose are several first-hand accounts of 19th-century military medicine, including the mournful tale of a friend dying of an unnamed disease while they were stationed in Jamaica, the “sickening feeling” of seeing the infamous military hospital at Scutari as his regiment sailed toward the Crimea, his own brush with death from carbon monoxide poisoning and the “severe” methods of blistering and bleeding used by the surgeon to revive him, and vivid descriptions of the horrifying cholera epidemics that took the lives of hundreds of soldiers around him while they waited to march against the Russian forces at Alma and Sebastopol. These accounts of the medical care and medical challenges Vicars encountered during his travels are the reason this book resides in the National Library of Medicine’s historical collections, but our copy of the book, printed in 1870, has a unique feature that gives it special value, charm, and beauty.
The NLM copy of Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars is beautifully bound in blue morocco leather, embossed with gold tooling, decorated dentelles, and gilt edges reminiscent of the elaborate binding techniques often applied to rare and precious volumes for wealthy patrons a century earlier. The front flyleaf bears an inscription from the author to “Dear Lord Stafford” dated July 20, 1872, offering “love & prayers & warm best wishes.” But what makes our copy of the book unique and special is a trait that you would not even know is there if you didn’t know to look for it… a beautiful watercolor painting on the edge of the book, only visible if you fan the pages downward at just the right angle.
Known as a fore-edge painting, it depicts a hospital scene with Captain Vicars visiting a bed-ridden patient while nurses go about their business around the bed. This could represent any number of occasions described in the book where Vicars made the rounds through the hospitals, preaching, praying, and reading scripture with the sick and injured soldiers. There is also some speculation that Vicars is the patient in the scene, reflecting his brief hospitalization following the carbon monoxide incident. What is known is that hospital scenes are extremely rare in fore-edge paintings, making this one a treasured gem in our collections.
Fore-edge paintings were made by clamping the text block of the book with the pages slightly offset, so that a minute portion of the face of each page is exposed. The artist would carefully paint the scene, often illustrating a passage from the book but sometimes just a landscape, still life, or other image, on these exposed page edges. When the clamp is removed and the text block is shifted back to its solid rectangular form, the painting disappears into the pages. The edges would often be gilded after the fore-edge was painted, ensuring that the image would not be visible when the book was in its normal, closed position.
Some varieties of fore-edge painting date back to the 10th century, but the “disappearing image” technique like the one seen here was not used until the mid-17th century. It was quite popular in England in the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, and as our book shows, it persisted through the 19th century. Sometimes the books would be decorated with double fore-edge paintings, meaning that different images would appear when you fanned the pages toward the front or the back of the book; the most elaborately painted books might also include images on the top or bottom edges. There are still a handful of artisans creating these unique works of art today, giving us a whole new reason to love our books.