Fore-edge paintings are illustrations applied to the edge of a book in a manner that when the book is closed, the images are hidden. Only when one fans the pages of the book are the paintings visible.
The technique was first observed on religious books in the mid-17th century. The process fell out of favor by the early 18th century, but was revived later that century by the booksellers and bookbinders Edwards of Halifax who created some of the most impressive examples of the medium.
As early as the 10th century, there were examples of painting on the edges of pages, but these early images were visible when the book was closed. Generally, the term “fore-edge painting” refers to the images that are undetectable when the pages of the book are not fanned.
To create the painting, the pages of the book must be fanned and held in a clamp. A watercolor painting is applied to the fanned pages. When the paint dries, the book is released from the vise and the edges of the book are gilded which successfully protects and hides the painting.
McCain Library & Archives owns two examples of fore-edge paintings – Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (PR5305 .E57) and The Oriental Annual, 1840 (DS412 .B33 1840). If you are interested in viewing these items, visit the 3rd floor of McCain Library or contact Jennifer Brannock at Jennifer.Brannock@usm.edu or 601.266.4347. To see more Items of the Month, click here.
For more information on fore-edge painting…
Weber, Carl Jefferson. Fore-edge painting; a historical survey of a curious art in book decoration . Irvington-on-Hudson : Harvey House, 1966. (Cook Library ND2370 .W37)
Weber, Carl Jefferson. A thousand and one fore-edge paintings, with notes on the artists, bookbinders, publishers, and other men and women connected with the history of a curious art . Waterville : Colby College Press, 1949. (Cook Library ND2370 .W4)
Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian