Hidden Wonders: a Selection of Fore-Edge Paintings from the Irvin Department Stacks

The term fore-edge painting refers to an image painted or drawn on the leaves of a book. While covering the page edges of a book in gold or silver leaf was and remains a popular decorative choice, sometimes artists painted whole scenes and landscapes on them. Early fore-edge paintings are visible along the closed fore-edge of the book and do not require any manipulation of the text-block in order to be seen. Later, more ambitious, “disappearing” fore-edge paintings were painted on the inside edges of the pages, so that the hidden scenes can only be seen when the text-block is fanned in a certain direction. When the book is simply closed, the page edges look normal and unadorned or merely gilded.  These later “disappearing” fore-edge paintings only reveal the image when the pages are slanted or shifted in a particular way. Fore-edge paintings are often done in watercolors and where traditionally associated with high-end bookbinding firms. While one does not see them very often these days, fore-edge paintings were once some of the loveliest book illustrations and constituted the pinnacle of the book as a work of art.

The Irvin Department’s oldest fore-edge painting. The Holy Bible (London: Iohn Field, 1655).

Fore-edge paintings date back to the 11th century and many early examples are decorated with heraldry and other allegorical and symbolic imagery. Disappearing fore-edge paintings began to appear around the 17th century. The Irvin Department’s earliest fore-edge painting is of flowers and an inscribed heart on a Bible from 1655.

Title page, The Holy Bible London: Iohn Field, 1655).

Fore-edge paintings steadily gained in popularity, and the paintings began to become more elaborate, consisting of detailed landscapes, classical and pastoral scenes, and portraits of authors. Another Bible in the collection has a fore-edge painting of Whitehall as viewed from Richmond House, London.

The Holy Bible Oxford: Printed at the Clarendon Press, by Dawson, Benseley, and Cooke, 1800).

Fore-edge paintings may or may not correspond to the subject of the book, and many typical scenes include picturesque views of Oxford and Cambridge, the Thames River, Westminster Abbey, the English village and countryside, the author or poet of a given work, ships and seascapes, and classical figures.

Reliques of Robert Burns (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1809).

Examples of fore-edge paintings that correspond to a book’s content are an 1809 copy of the Reliques of Robert Burns, which has a painting of Burns’ cottage, and an 1864 copy of The Ballads and Songs of Robert Burns that depicts Friars Carse, the home of Robert Riddle from Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland.

The Ballads and Songs of Robert Burns (London: Charles Griffin, 1864).

A twentieth century example is found in a volume of The Poetical Works of John Keats (Oxford UP, 1939), which has a fore- edge painting by Sue Buckingham Moulton depicting Keats and his house at Highgate.

The Poetical Works of John Keats (London: Oxford University Press, 1939).

Examples of paintings that are less clearly related to the text’s subject matter are a copy of James Thomson’s The Seasons and the Castle of Indolence, which has a painting of a duck hunt, and Walter Scott’s Marmion, which depicts the resort town of Bournemouth.

The Seasons and the Castle of Indolence, by James Thomson (London: William Pickering, 1830).

Marmion: a Tale of Flodden Field, by Sir Walter Scott (Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1838).

The two volume Memoirs of Count Grammont each have elaborate landscapes painted along their fore-edge.

Memoirs of Count Grammont, by Anthony Hamilton (London: W. Miller and J. Carpenter, 1811).

Memoirs of Count Grammont, by Anthony Hamilton (London: W. Miller and J. Carpenter, 1811).

Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici pictures Oxford, Browne’s alma mater, and Henry Morely’s The King and the Commons depicts the Houses of Parliament with “Big Ben” to the right.  

Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869).

Henry Morley, The King and the Commons (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869).

Often, fore-edge paintings are found in books that have fine bindings, and many of the high-end binding houses in England commissioned fore-edge paintings during the style’s peak. While many of our fore-edge paintings are on books that have fine bindings, two important fore-edge paintings in the Irvin Department’s collections are bound in a superlative style. A 1796 copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has a painting of Felong House, Norfolk, and is bound in Panelled calf, by Edwards of Halifax. Additionally, a 1784 copy of The Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has a fore-edge painting of Burghley House, Northamptonshire, and is bound in full vellum, with a gilt and painted spine, emblematic tooling, gilt and painted borders, with illustrations after James Edwards, depicting the Three Graces on the upper cover and Orpheus charming the animals on the lower.

Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Published by T. Heptinstall, Fleet Street, May 1st, 1796).









Letters of the Right Honourable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1784).

Artists would sometimes paint two illustrations to a fore-edge, known as a “two-way double,” with an illustration on either side of the pages that reveal themselves depending on the slant of the text-block. The Irvin Department has a two volume set of Tennyson’s Poems, from 1843, that are adorned in such a fashion. Volume one has the city of Lincoln on one edge and Dover on the reverse edge, while volume two has Trinity College Cambridge and a view of Westminster from the Thames.

Tennyson’s Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street, 1843).

Tennyson’s Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street, 1843).

Tennyson’s Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street, 1843).

Tennyson’s Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Edward Moxon, Dover Street, 1843).

Some fore-edges are painted in what is called a “split double,” so that if the book is laid open in the center, naturally splaying the pages to either side, two different illustrations could be seen on either side. The Irvin Department has a 1910 copy of George Herbert’s Poems that has a portrait of Herbert on the right and a portrait of Nicholas Ferrar on the left, and was painted in 2008 by Martin Frost, one of the few living artists who works on fore-edges.

The Irvin Department has recently acquired an extensive collection of volumes by the poet George Herbert, and several of them, including the “split double” above, contain fore-edge paintings with portraits of Herbert and other scenes.

While varying in quality and not always directly relevant to a book’s subject matter, fore-edge paintings are beautiful reminders that books are also works of art that appeal to all of our senses and engage our aesthetic and affective as well as our rational and analytical faculties of mind.

Michael C. Weisenburg 
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Marvel Science Stories

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has recently acquired a run of Marvel Science Stories, a serialized science fiction pulp magazine and precursor to the more well known Marvel Comics. 

Marvel Science Stories, 1.1 (August 1938), cover.

Marvel Science Stories, 1.1 (August 1938), p. 65











First released in August 1938 by Abraham and Martin Goodman, who would found Marvel Comics the following year, Marvel Science Stories was a science fiction pulp magazine that published 15 issues over two different runs between 1938-1941 and 1950-1952. The first run consisted of 9 issues with prolific science fiction author and Lovecraft Circle member Henry Kuttner taking the cover. Kuttner would publish numerous times in the magazine under his own name and several pseudonyms. During its first run the magazine would feature a number of other notable authors like prolific pulp author Arthur J. Burks and the so called “Dean of Science Fiction” Jack Williamson. The magazine would also draw some of Marvel Comics founding talent. The November 1940 issue would feature illustrations done by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby whose newest creation, Captain America, would premier in Marvel Comics in December.

Marvel Science Stories, 2.2 (November 1940), cover.

Marvel Science Stories, 2.2 (November 1940), p.56.











Although the initial run of the magazine would end in 1941, the Goodmans revived the magazine in 1950 with significant improvements in quality. Robert O. Erisman had been the magazine’s editor for its first run, and remained the lead editor in the second run with Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon, as editorial assistant. They featured lesser works by Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, and Lester del Ray as by this time most of these authors were selling their best work to larger magazines. Marvel Science Stories would ultimately publish their last issue in May of 1952. 

Marvel Science Fiction, 3.5 (November 1951), cover.

Marvel Science Stories, 3.3 (May 1951), cover.










David Shay
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

Posted in American literature, Comics, Pulp Magazines, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Irvin Department’s Weird Science exhibit is the perfect way to celebrate Halloween

The Irvin Department’s current exhibit, Weird Science: A History of Human Knowledge, traces the history of science at its most fantastical. 

The exhibit highlights the development of crucial technical discoveries like microscopy or astronomy and concepts like Darwin’s theory of evolution.  And while some of the sciences on display like alchemy led to modern day chemistry, some ideas, like the existence of intelligent life on Mars in desperate need of our help just seems downright weird.

But today is Halloween so we are setting aside the examples of the weird and focusing on the science of the spooky, the creepy and the wicked.


Phrenology, translated as “Science of the Brain,” is the concept that the brain is “the organ of the mind” and certain areas of the brain have localized and specific functions.  While this concept has a basis in science, phrenology was viewed as “a science and an art” because the phrenological practitioner inferred the subject’s moral and cognitive strengths and deficiencies based on the size and shape of the various regions of the skull.

To perfect this “science,” practitioners often viewed the skulls of deceased individuals.  The Irvin Department holds a cast of the skull of Robert Burns and the accompanying phrenological reading as well as several texts with diagrams and drawings of skulls often acquired by the author through precarious methods. 

Case of materials related to phrenology, including the cast of Robert Burns’s skull

One example of more nefarious skull acquisition is Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana, or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To Which is Prefixed an Essay on the Variety of the Human Species. (1839)  Morton, an early ethnographer, used phrenology to bolster his argument that humans in different geographic regions were members of different species.  Morton argued that God created each race from a separate origin and intentionally separated them by geography.  In Crania Americana¸ Morton sketched and measured skulls of indigenous tribes throughout North and South America.  George Combe then used these measurements to provide phrenological insights into the different tribes on the continents, and Morton used them to support his theory that different human species exist in different geographic regions.  Masquerading as objective science, their conclusions only reaffirmed racial stereotypes of the time.  Morton often took skulls from burial mounds and graves long after the person had been laid to rest. 

Skulls from Morton’s Crania Americana

Mummified remains from Morton’s Crania Americana

Another example of science with more malevolent spirits at play is the study of the occult and demonology.  Humans have long tried to explain the world around them and the world beyond their limits through the exploration of the divine.  Many of the works on display are attempts to understand the divine and manipulate it for human benefit through science.  But if there is a divine, there must also be an evil.

Daniel Defoe’s A System of Magick: or, a History of the Black Art (1727) is a text that describes the history of the practice of magic and its connection to the Devil.  It also explores how the Devil has continued to insinuate himself throughout history, deceiving humanity.


Since the devil is an active participant in daily life, a science must be developed to hunt out this evil.  Therefore, hunting witches, who had sold their souls to the Devil, became a necessity to rid the world of malevolent spirits.  Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismum Triumphatus: or, A full and Plain Evidence, Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1726) was originally published in 1681 and confirms the existence of witches and their supernatural abilities and attacks skeptics. This work influence Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials in 1692.

And finally, a work from the reading list of Dr. Frankenstein himself, Giovanni Aldini’s An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803). Aldini was the nephew of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), the Italian scientist who pioneered the study of bioelectricity and whose name is the origin of the term “galvanism.” Aldini popularized his uncle’s electrical experiments, most famously by applying the galvanic apparatus to the body of an executed criminal in 1803. The results of this performance were shocking: the corpse’s mouth quivered, his face became contorted, one eye opened, and his hand and legs moved. Galvanism and its potential for reanimating the dead were among the topics discussed by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others in the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and in her preface to the novel’s 1831 edition, she notes that these conversations had suggested that “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things.”

Galvanic apparatus being applied to the head and body of a dog and the heads of bulls.

So this Halloween, don’t be afraid of the mummies, witches and monsters; instead view them as evidence of humanity’s desire for knowledge and the limitless creativity that we employ to meet that end.

Weird Science: A History of Human Knowledge is on display through December 20, 2017 in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections Library in the Hollings Special Collection Library.

Jessica Crouch, Archivist

Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

Posted in Exhibitions, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Historical Immersion and Contemporary Distraction

Many teachers, writers, and readers are concerned about the rise in distracted reading that digital technologies are often assumed to prompt. As we increasingly read on screens, and as students are taught and tested on digital devices, the common experience of distracted reading is calling attention to the nature of attention itself.

In a section of English 101 (Critical Reading and Composition) that met regularly in Rare Books, students approached academic writing by way of this public concern about popular reading habits—the differences between reading in print and reading on screens. Students read short stories in different formats including original editions, twenty-first paperbacks, and online editions. In class, they discussed their experiences reading the same story in more than one format. The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, led students to refine the concepts of “distraction” and “attention” that are frequently invoked in popular discussions of reading online.








If we agree that online texts can encourage inattentive, discontinuous reading experiences, then what kinds of reading experiences might various historical print forms encourage? How might readers react, for example, to short stories published in periodicals, printed in narrow columns between full-page illustrated advertisements? Reading online can, of course, provide encyclopedic contextual information—it can be far easier to look up unfamiliar names and terms online, and some students benefit from using one tab to read a story and a second tab to search for relevant information and definitions. But as other students acknowledge, if a third tab is open to facebook, and possibly another for twitter, then today’s distractions can outweigh the benefits of quick searching capabilities. Students were asked to consider whether the helpful contextual information that reading online can provide might outweigh the loss of immersive, enchanted reading experiences that a printed book can foster.






Early in the semester, students discussed the concept of “enchanted reading,” a response to literature described by Rita Felski in her Uses of Literature. For Felski, enchantment names “a state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter” (54). For other critics, psychologists, and readers, printed books tend to foster enchanted reading experiences while digital editions can instead encourage inattention and distraction.





Distracted reading, though, is not new. Poems have been published with disruptive footnotes and marginal glosses, novels have been published with extensive illustrations. Historical print forms could lead to difficulty in navigating from page to page, problems in maintaining plot continuity, and, in this case, the potential distractions of large illustrations and advertisements printed between the sections of Fitzgerald’s short story. But as twenty-first-century readers turning the pages of an early twentieth-century magazine, students experienced a different kind of distraction, one that they found aids in the comprehension of a historical era and a literary work. This kind of distraction is, many decided, productive. It seems to make historical distance easier to cross. Seeing the hairstyles, fashions, and consumer products so crucial to Fitzgerald’s story helped make sense of his characters’ actions. These distractions were historical rather than contemporary—they depict the unfamiliar world of a hundred years ago rather than returning us to the very familiar world of the present. These distractions also led, for some students, to a different kind of immersive reading experience, a level of engagement that comes much closer to the aesthetic enchantment that had initially seemed to be the polar opposite of distraction. 


Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Jeanne M. Britton
Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
University of South Carolina

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment