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“Testament and Psalter, Sternhold’s Version of the Psalms." Manuscript, hand-written by Walter Buchanan (fl. 1650s [London]: 1653)

“Testament and Psalter, Sternhold’s Version of the Psalms." London, 1653

“Testament and Psalter, Sternhold’s Version of the Psalms."  Manuscript, hand-written by Walter Buchanan (fl. 1650s). [London]: 1653. Stephen and Thomas Lewis (fl. 1653-1662) binding in black morocco with elaborate gold tooling using numerous small tools to create a strapwork design centered by a lozenge surrounded by stepped spandrels and a scalloped border; pointed metal clasps (both missing), marbled endpapers.  The fore-edge of the leaves is painted under the gold with flowers, a ribbon inscribed Walter Buchanan, and a central medallion inscribed These are Writing that ye Might Beleeve: John 20: 31.  14.5 x 10.2 cm.  Gift of Mrs. Agnes McKean Austin, 1847; formerly in the libraries of Walter Buchanan, Mather Byles (1706-1788), John Eliot (1754-1813), and Joseph McKean (1776-1818).

 

Walter Buchanan wrote this small devotional volume in a tiny shorthand that is illegible to most readers.  Nonetheless, it was treasured by a series of prominent Boston ministers before it was given to the Boston Athenæum.  How it came to Boston is not known, but it may have been in the portion of the library of Increase Mather that was inherited by his grandson, Mather Byles, the minister of the Hollis Street Congregational Church in Boston.  Byles owned a distinguished library that barely escaped destruction by fire.  In 1787 a conflagration that destroyed eighty houses threatened to engulf Byles’s house and its celebrated collections.  His books and papers were quickly moved out of the house and deposited in total disarray in a neighboring pasture.  The water-staining that is quite noticeable in the “Psalms” manuscript may have occurred at that time.

Mather Byles’s books were sold after his death and the “Psalms” next became part of the collection of the Rev. John Eliot.  After his death in 1813 it is found listed in the sale catalogue of his books as “Testament and Psalter ([in elegantly written] shorthand), manuscript, M. Byles”[1]  At that sale it was apparently bought by the Rev. Joseph McKean, who had been a friend of Rev. Eliot and had written a memoir of him for the Massachusetts Historical Society.[2]  McKean followed his friend to the grave in 1818 and the “Psalms” was apparently kept by the family; it was given to the Athenæum by one of his cousins, Mrs. Agnes McKean Austin, many years later, in 1847. 

“Testament and Psalter, Sternhold’s Version of the Psalms."  Manuscript, hand-written by Walter Buchanan (fl. 1650s). [London]: 1653. Stephen and Thomas Lewis (fl. 1653-1662) binding in black morocco with elaborate gold tooling using numerous small tools to create a strapwork design centered by a lozenge surrounded by stepped spandrels and a scalloped border; pointed metal clasps (both missing), marbled endpapers.  The fore-edge of the leaves is painted under the gold with flowers, a ribbon inscribed Walter Buchanan, and a central medallion inscribed These are Writing that ye Might Beleeve: John 20: 31.  14.5 x 10.2 cm.  Gift of Mrs. Agnes McKean Austin, 1847; formerly in the libraries of Walter Buchanan, Mather Byles (1706-1788), John Eliot (1754-1813), and Joseph McKean (1776-1818).While it is possible that some of the owners of the “Psalms” could decipher its shorthand manuscript text, it is more likely that they preferred to read an easier format and enjoyed owning this book for aesthetic reasons.  Even in the 1700s it had antiquarian charm as a lovely example of early piety.  Rather like Up-Biblum God, the famous Bible written in a Native American language by John Eliot in 1663 (which very few could read), this was a book to be collected for its historical associations and unique character.[3]  It also had the added delight of a spectacular binding and an exceedingly rare seventeenth-century fore-edge painting.  While the workmanship was undoubtedly considered anonymous, if its authorship was considered at all, it can now be confidently attributed to the London bindery of Stephen and Thomas Lewis.[4] The design of the minutely detailed gold tooling on the boards is very like that on a copy of the Bible that is in the Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library.[5] That book, which has a fore-edge painting similar in style to the Athenæum’s example, is signed by Stephen and Thomas Lewis and dated 1653.  The fore-edges of books had been decorated with designs and lettered with titles for many years before the Lewis brothers began working.  Their particular invention involved fanning the pages apart to increase the width of the fore-edge before applying the painted decoration.  This technique gave them a larger area to decorate and also protected the design, which essentially disappeared when the book was closed.  The Lewis brothers were also unusual in that they signed some of their fore-edge paintings in an age when most craftsmen were anonymous.

The Athenæum’s Lewis binding and fore-edge painting are unsigned but the book is clearly from their workshop.  It joins a select group of ten known examples by two of the earliest practitioners of a type of book decoration that did not flourish until the late nineteenth century.  Happily, the Athenæum collections also contain later examples of fore-edge paintings to compare with this rare early example.  In 1991, Sidney B. Smith gave the Library eleven books decorated with fine fore-edge paintings that picture American landscapes.  Many of these books display double fore-edge paintings that provide two different views depending on which way the book pages are fanned open. 

 

Stanley Ellis Cushing, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 88-90. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

 

[1]Catalogue of the Library of the Late Rev. John Eliot, D.D. (Boston: Whitwell, Bond & Co., 1813), 26.
[2] [Joseph McKean], Memoir Towards a Character of Rev. John Eliot, S.T.D. (Boston: [Massachusetts Historical Society] 1813).

[3]The Athenæum has a copy of the 1663 edition and two copies of the 1685 edition of this text.

[4]William Kellaway, “The Fore-Edge Paintings of Stephen and Thomas Lewis,” The Guildhall Miscellany 8 (July 1957): 27-32.

[5]Dorothy Miner, The History of Bookbinding 525-1950 A.D. (Baltimore: Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, 1957), 168-169.