Fore-edge Painting: Hidden Artworks on The Edges of Books

Jan 26, 2018 0 comments

The following video created by an archivist at Cornell University’s Library, New York, shows a 1925 copy of Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". The book appears to be a typical hard bound with a decorative spine and gilded fore edge. The person handling the book in the video then holds the block of pages between the thumb and the rest of the fingers and bends it to fan out the edges slightly. All of a sudden, a lovely painting of a landscape pops out of the book’s edge.

This form of fore-edge decoration is known as fore-edge painting, and they were very popular during the 18th century through the early 20th century. But the history of fore-edge painting goes back even further.

Some of the earliest examples of fore-edge paintings date back to the 10th century. These early paintings were simple decorations or heraldic designs made in gold and other colors. Disappearing fore-edge paintings, where the painting is not visible when the book is closed, began to appear around the middle of the 17th century, and the paintings also became more elaborate consisting of fully colored illustration of landscapes, portraits and religious scenes. The technique peaked in late 19th and early 20th century when artists began to paint on books originally published in the early 19th century. The majority of surviving fore-edge paintings date from this period.


A rather amusing painting made on the edge of “The Heavens: The Seasons” by Robert Mudie, written in 1836 on the subject of astronomy. The painting shows an old astronomer who is so engrossed with his telescope that he is completely unaware that his wife and apprentice are having sex in his own bedroom while he is distracted. Photo credit: Melissa Kunz/University of Tulsa

Modern fore-edge paintings show a lot more variation than those produced earlier. Sometimes two different illustrations were painted on either side of the pages, each one revealing when the page block was fanned in a certain direction. Some fore-edge painters went a step further and painted a third scene directly on the edge of the book that can only be seen when the book is closed completely. Others painted panoramic fore-edge painting that wrapped around the edges of the book. Some extremely creative pieces needs to be fanned or twisted in a special way in order to see the painting.

The subject matter of the scenes also changed from landscapes and religious to erotic and scenes from popular novels like those by Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. In many cases, the fore-edges were painted with scenes depicting a subject related to the book. But there are many other cases where it is not.

There are several libraries and rare book houses around the world where you can see fore-edge paintings in person. The Ralph H. Wark Collection at the Earl Gregg Swem Library in Virginia, the United States of America, is home over 700 rare books with fore-edge paintings, including several with vertical portraits and double-edge paintings.

Although a dying art, fore-edge paintings are still being created by artists such as Martin Frost and Clare Brooksbank. Martin Frost has over 3,000 artworks to his name.


The gilded fore-edge of “Thoughts on Hunting: in a Series of Familiar Letters to a Friend”, published in 1820, appears nothing out of ordinary, until the pages are fanned to the side. Photo credit: Petrina Jackson/University of Virginia


This is the first of the two paintings on this double fore-edge painted book. Photo credit: Petrina Jackson/University of Virginia


This is the second painting that appears when the pages are fanned the other way. Photo credit: Petrina Jackson/University of Virginia


“The Poetical Works and Essays” by Oliver Goldsmith, published in 1820. Photo credit: Miami University Libraries.


“Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century” published in 1801. Photo credit: Miami University Libraries.


Œuvres complètes de P. J. de Béranger, published in 1835. Photo credit: Miami University Libraries.


“The fortunes of Nigel” by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1871. Photo credit: Miami University Libraries.


Photo credit: Brandeis University Library


Photo credit: Brandeis University Library


Photo credit: Brandeis University Library


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