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