Fore-edge painting

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Jerusalem Delivered, an Heroic Poem, translated from the Italian of Torquato Tasso, by John Hoole. London 1797; with fore-edge painting: Trajan's Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs

A fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book. There are two basic forms, including paintings on edges that have been fanned and edges that are closed; thus with the first instance a book edge must be fanned to see the painting and in the second the painting is on the closed edge itself and thus should not be fanned. A fanned painting is one that is not visible when the book is closed.

In order to view the painting, the leaves of the book must be fanned, exposing the edges of the pages and thereby the painting. Another basic difference is that a painting on the closed edge is painted directly on the surface of the book edge (the fore-edge being the opposite of the spine side). For the fanned painting the watercolor is applied to the top or bottom margin (recto or verso) of the page/leaf and not to the actual "fore"-edge itself.


A single fore-edge painting includes a painting on only one side of the book page edges. Generally, gilt or marbling is applied by the bookbinder after the painting has dried, so as to make the painting completely invisible when the book is closed.

A double fore-edge painting has paintings on both sides of the page margin so that one painting is visible when the leaves are fanned one way, and the other is visible when the leaves are fanned the other way.

A triple fore-edge painting has, in addition to paintings on the edges, a third painting applied directly to the edges (in lieu of gilt or marbling). Edge paintings that are continuous scenes wrapped around more than one edge are called panoramic fore-edge painting. These are sometimes called a 'triple edge painting'.[1][2]


The earliest fore-edge paintings date possibly as far back as the 10th century; these earliest paintings were symbolic designs. Early English fore-edge paintings, believed to date to the 14th century, presented heraldic designs in gold and other colors. The first known example of a disappearing fore-edge painting (where the painting is not visible when the book is closed) dates from 1649. The earliest signed and dated fore-edge painting dates to 1653: a family coat of arms painted on a 1651 Bible.

Around 1750, the subject matter of fore-edge paintings changed from simply decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes, portraits and religious scenes, usually painted in full color. Modern fore-edge painted scenes have a lot more variation as they can depict numerous subjects not found on earlier specimens. These include scenes that are erotic, or they might involve scenes from novels (like Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes or Dickens, etc.). In many cases, the chosen scene will depict a subject related to the book, but in other cases it did not. In one instance, the same New Brunswick landscape was applied to both a Bible and to a collection of poetry and plays. The choice of scenes is made by either the artist, bookseller or owner, thus the variety is wide.

The majority of extant examples of fore-edge painting date to the late 19th and early 20th century on reproductions of books originally published in the early 19th century.

Artists currently expert in the fore-edge artform include UK-based artists, Martin Frost and Clare Brooksbank. The reference book of L. Jeff Weber lists many artist and binders names associated with this art form, including those working presently (until 2010).


No comprehensive census of fore-edge paintings in the United States has yet been completed.

The College of William and Mary's Earl Gregg Swem Library holds a collection of 709 fore-edge paintings in the Ralph H. Wark Collection.[3]

The Boston Public Library has a collection of 258 fore-edge paintings, one of the larger collections in the United States, and many examples are displayed online.[4] The Estelle Doheny Collection housed in the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California, is described as "roughly twice as large" as the collection at the Boston Public Library.[4]


  1. Bromer, Anne C. "Fore Edge Painting - An Introduction". On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting. Boston Public Library. Retrieved 18 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Frost, Martin. "What Is A Fore-Edge Painting?". On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting. Boston Public Library. Retrieved 18 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Ralph H. Wark Collection". Earl Gregg Swem LIbrary. Retrieved 10 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Figenbaum, Muriel C. "The Albert H. Wiggin Collection". On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting. Boston Public Library. Retrieved 18 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Gilbert, Jon, Fore-edge Painting within The New Bookbinder Volume 17, Designer Bookbinder Publications Ltd, 1997.
  • Hobson, Kenneth. “On Fore-Edge Painting of Books”. In The Folio. 1949.
  • Weber, Carl Jefferson. A Thousand and One Fore-edge Paintings. Waterville, Colby College Press, 1949.
  • Weber, Carl Jefferson. Fore-edge painting: a historical survey of a curious art in book decoration, Harvey House, 1966.
  • Weber, Laurence Jefferson. Annotated Dictionary of Fore-edge Painting Artists & Binders: The Fore-edge Paintings of Miss C. B. Currie with a catalogue raisonné. Los Angeles, 2010.

External links