|A fore-edge painting. Image courtesy of the University of Florida.|
Viscount Alfred Milner, England in Egypt. London: Arnold, 1894.
Most of the edges of these books are gilded or marbled after the painting is done and has dried, further obscuring it from plain view when the book is closed. Not content to just do one painting, some artists create double fore-edge paintings - one painting can be seen fanning the pages one way, the other can be seen by fanning the pages in the other direction. An even more ambitious project is the triple fore-edge painting, which has a third scene painted on the very edges instead of gilt or marbling. This third painting, therefore, is visible when the book is closed. Additionally, some artists also did paintings on the top and bottom edges of books, known as panoramic fore-edge paintings, but these are not as common.
The earliest fore-edge paintings may have been done as far back as the 10th century and were of symbolic designs - coats of arms, shields, etc. The earliest English ones were of heraldic designs, often just in gold, and are thought to be from the 14th century. Circa 1750 the subject matter of the paintings became more complex. Landscapes, portraits, religious scenes, and even x-rated scenes were done, some relating to the book but often not. Many fore-edge paintings were applied to old books, even centuries older.
Since most of the painters did not sign their work, it is anyone's guess who they are. Some binderies employed artists to do fore-edge paintings. Some artists have been assigned names, for instance the "Dover artist", so-called because s/he painted scenes of Dover. Historians and scholars can sometimes recognize an artist by their style.
There are basically two theories of the origins of fore-edge paintings. The first one refers to the Middle Ages, when books were composed of vellum or parchment and therefore commonly shelved on their sides with the edges out. This was the most practical area to write titles. Later when paper became the preferred material for books, they could be bound with spines and shelved vertically. The spines became the obvious place for titles, leaving the fore-edge blank - and literally a blank canvas.
The other theory is simpler. Since bookbinders liked to decorate their creations, blank edges begged for some decoration of their own. This led to the first decorations, mostly heraldic or simple designs like flowers or butterflies, that were not only painted but stamped on the edges.
|Simple motifs decorate the fore-edge of this book.|
Jeremy Taylor, Rule and Exerfises of Holy Living. London: M. Flefher, 1686.
Image courtesy of the Bentley Rare Book Gallery, Kennesaw State University.
Edwards of Halifax, the well-known British binders/publishers/booksellers, revived the practice and made it popular. William Edwards was painting fore-edges in the late 1700s using monochrome at first (gray or brown) and then the full range of colors. The typical books done included Bibles and prayer books, the classics, and poetry. William picked up on the new term "picturesque", coined by author William Gilpin, meaning that something was capable of being skillfully depicted in painting, and began creating fore-edge paintings that illustrated something from the books they were painted on. William's son Thomas Edwards carried on with the family tradition of fore-edge painting.
|An example of a monochromatic painting.|
C.C. Sturm, Sturm's Reflections. London: G. & W.B. Whitaker, 1823.
Image courtesy the George and Frances Gill Collection.
In the late 19th century, there was a period of time when a painting had no relation to the content of its book. British booksellers were trying to appeal to buyers, especially those from the U.S. Tourists apparently liked images of their country and history, so they bought books in England where they could find those types of scenes. Most of these books were unimportant volumes, and appealing to U.S. patrons was a good way to get rid of their older stock. Although the prices went up on these books, the quality of the paintings went down.
|These golfers are an example of a painting unrelated to the book's subject.|
Sir Walter Scott, The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott.
Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1869.
Image courtesy of the George and Frances Gill Collection.
Watercolor paints were used with as dry a brush as possible to keep the paint from running. These paints were absorbed by the paper and didn't cause the pages to stick together later as oils or other paints might. They also don't crack with repeated handling.
|Titians "The Aldobrandini Madonna", circa 1532. Virgin and child with St. John|
and St. Catherine. The title is often incorrectly used with Rafael's "Garvagh Madonna".
Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London.
The art continues today with a few artists. Martin Frost is perhaps the most well-known. Another is Clare Brooksbank. Books with fore-edge paintings are highly collectable luxury items and fetch enormous prices. If you are looking for an artistic endeavor and can work in miniature, this might be the medium for you.
Unless otherwise stated and linked, images courtesy of
The Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington
The Marist College