What are fore-edge paintings? Grab the nearest book and fan the pages on the outer edge, opposite the book spine. This is the fore-edge of a book. Chances are you will see fanned-out pages and nothing more. When a book with a fore-edge painting is fanned, just as the name implies, a painting will appear. It will be hidden when the book is closed, save for the gilt of the fore-edge, and only revealed when the edges of the paper are pushed down.
There is nothing quite like seeing a fore-edge painting seemingly appear out of nowhere. It is even more astonishing when fanning the pages in one direction and seeing an image appear, and then seeing a completely different painting when fanning the pages in the opposite direction. These are rightly called double fore-edge paintings. While there are not many surviving books with double fore-edge paintings, New-York Historical’s Library fortuitously holds more than a dozen.
Although marking the fore-edge of a book had been done for centuries, it is often thought the development of the hidden fore-edge painting began in the mid-seventeenth century by London bookbinders Stephen and Thomas Lewis. It grew more renowned under the auspices of King Charles II’s royal bookbinder, Samuel Merne. The popularization of the art form, however, is most closely associated with Edwards of Halifax, an 18th– early 19th-century bookbinding family located in Pall Mall, London. Bookbinders like Edwards of Halifax hired artists to paint scenes on the edges. These artists would use watercolor, and then the edges were typically decorated in gilt.
The scenes were not always original; some artists copied images from paintings and wood engravings. In fact, in many cases, the subject of the fore-edge was not related to the content of the book. Looking at the double fore-edge painting on one of the Library’s copies of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., we see scenes of Boston and Philadelphia. Though The Sketch Book never once mentions these cities, this was a clever way to advertise to an American audience.
One of the difficulties in tracing the provenance of a book’s fore-edge painting is that artists often did not sign their name to their work. Therefore, paintings are often connected to a particular bookbinder. For instance, late 19th century Liverpool bookbinder John Fazakerley was known for creating books with fore-edge paintings. Yet because the artists did not sign their names, the fore-edge paintings of Fazakerley bound books are associated with him. To confound matters, many twentieth century fore-edge paintings were often created on books that were published in earlier centuries.
In addition to the examples below, check out our Tumblr to see some of these fore-edges and others in motion.
Weber, Carl Jefferson. Fore-edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Harvey House, 1966.
This post is by Rebecca Grabie, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.