Friday, August 10, 2012

Fore-Edge Paintings: Beauty on the Edge

Original Article at ABE Books
by Beth Carswell 

Lyrics of the Heart: With Other Poems by Alaric Watts
Lyrics of the Heart: With Other Poems 

fore-edge painting is decoration painted on the edges of a book’s pages for beautification. The fore-edge of a book is the fourth edge - not the spine, the top, or the bottom edge, but the outside edge that a reader would use to thumb through the pages. Originally, this edge was only used for identification, to more easily spot a book when the edges faced outward.

Around the 16th century, an Italian artist named Cesare Vecellio (cousin of celebrated Renaissance painter Titian) began to use the fore-edge of books as a canvas, and took the opportunity to make books more beautiful. The first instances of decorative fore-edge paintings were applied outright on the edges of the leaves, easily visible to anyone who cared to look when the book was closed.

In the 17th century, one of the Queen’s Binders (a group of highly skilled English bookbinders during the Restoration period)  took the skill one step further by discovering that if one painted on the slight inner edges of the pages, then gilded or marbled the outside page edges, the scene would be undetectable when the book was closed, and only reveal itself when the pages were fanned slightly, creating a disappearing, re-appearing masterpiece.
Debrett's Book of the Royal Wedding, fanned to show the hidden painting on the page edges
Debrett's Book of the Royal Wedding,
fanned to show the hidden fore-edge painting 
These types of fore-edge paintings, only visible when the pages are fanned in a certain way, often require a special stand or press for display that keeps the pages held at the right angle to show the art. Otherwise, when the book is closed, the painting remains undetectable. 
While it’s amazing enough hiding one painting this way (a single fore-edge painting), some artists created the astonishing technique of the double fore-edge painting, in which a book’s fore-edge shows two different scenes when the pages are fanned back to front or front to back. And some artists forgo the usual gilt or marbling on the very edges of the eaves, opting instead to include a third depiction (triple fore-edge-painting), visible when the book is closed.  Most fantastically of all, some painters also embellish the top and bottom edges of the book pages, for an effect known as a panoramic fore-edge painting.

Believed to have originated as long ago as the 10th century, fore-edge paintings first often depicted shields, coats of arms or other insignia. As artists became more interested in beautification, they began to include landscapes, battle scenes, religious iconography, floral designs, and more, sometimes related to the book's subject and sometimes not.

Many of the books sold today with fore-edge paintings are antiquarian volumes to which the edge paintings have been added much later. One of the most widely seen modern-day fore-edge painting artists is Martin Frost, based in the UK, who since 1970 has produced countless fore-edge paintings, including many offered for sale on AbeBooks.

Please see Bromer Booksellers at and The Boston Public Library at

Related Video

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Fore-edge Painted Books

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RitesThe Book of Common Prayer and the Administrations of The Sacraments

1864. This is a fabulously old book with a beautiful hidden split fore-edge. When the book is open in half, the edges display beautifully.
The Art of England by John RuskinThe Art of England by John Ruskin

1887. Scene with hunters on horseback chasing a fox. On the top edge you can see the artist's sense of humor as the man is falling off the horse.

Life on the Mississippi by Mark TwainLife on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

1883. Under the gilt is a fore-edge by Martin Frost of a Mark Twain in the center, and in the background are the paddle boats on the Mississippi.
The Poetical Works of Lord Byron The Poetical Works of Lord Byron 

1883. Under the gilt is a fabulous fore-edge painting done by Martin Frost, which is signed. It is of "The Time Machine".

Select Orations of M. T. Cicero by Sir Charles WhitworthSelect Orations of M. T. Cicero by Sir Charles Whitworth

1777. Rare two-volume set of Duncan & Whitworth “Cicero” with original Edward of Halifax bindings. Also, each book has a fore-edge scene, likely contemporary to the book itself.
The Works of the British Poets Volume IIThe Works of the British Poets, Vol II 

1856. Hidden under the gilt is a fore-edge painting of the “Elephant Man” painted and signed by Martin Frost. Volume two.

Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson
Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson

1901. Magnificent fore-edge painting executed by Martin Frost after famous Edward Burne-Jones painting, "Songs of Praise".
The Holy BibleThe Holy Bible

1883. Hidden under the gold gilt is a fabulous fore-edge painting by Martin Frost depicting a barber's shop with monkeys as the barbers and customers.

Lectures on Painting by Esquire John OpieLectures on Painting by Esquire John Opie

1809. The lovely fore-edge painting is of "The Death of Procris" after Piero di Cosimo and is in excellent condition.
Watership Down by Richard Adams Watership Down by Richard Adams 

1976. This fore-edge painting was one of 10 specially commissioned for Chas. J. Sawyer in 1976 by Don Noble - a contemporary of Martin Frost.

The Faerie Queen: The Shepheard's Calendar by Edmund SpenserThe Faerie Queen: The Shepheard's Calendar by Edmund Spenser

1617. John T. Beer, a successful clothier and avid book collector, turned to fore-edge painting in his retirement; his paintings were produced 1884-1900.
Caesar - A Sketch by James Anthony Froude, M.A.Caesar - A Sketch by James Anthony Froude, M.A. 

1879. Has a hidden fore-edge painting of Julius Caesar with Roman warriors, in full uniform, with weapons on foot, going to battle.

Divozione Pratica Ai Santi Angeli Custodi Divozione Pratica Ai Santi Angeli Custodi 

1776. Devotional work on guardian angels; unusual fore-edge painting shows three scenes of guardian angels warding off the devil.
Glenfinlas, and Other Ballads Etc. A Poem by Walter ScottGlenfinlas, and Other Ballads Etc. by Walter Scott

1812. Lovely fore-edge painting, showing a London view with River Thames and Blackfriars' Bridge, with the cupola of St. Paul's towering in the background.

The Poems of Gray The Poems of Gray by Thomas Gray

1800. Rare original Edwards of Halifax binding and fore-edge painting. The scene shows an English country town.
Cardiphonia: or, the Utterance of the Heart by John NewtonCardiphonia: or, the Utterance of the Heart by John Newton 

1822. With an attractive and detailed contemporary fore-edge painting depicting Douglas, Isle of Man, the harbor ringed in hills, and more.

The Jerusalem Delivered of Torquato Tasso by J. H. WiffinThe Jerusalem Delivered of Torquato Tasso by J.H. Wiffin 

1869. Fore-edge painting done by and signed by Martin Frost. It is an edge of a Jerusalem scene with horses, soldiers in armor, and more.
The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale by Lord ByronThe Giaour, Fragment of Turkish Tale by Lord Byron

1813. With an especially fine fore-edge painting of the Castle of Chillon and 11 works, including five firsts, by Byron.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane AustenSense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

1905. Handsomely bound in a fine signed leather binding by Bumpus Ltd., Oxford. Enhanced with a charming full color fore-edge painting.
The Works of the British PoetsThe Works of the British Poets, Vol. I 

1856. There is a full face portrait of Hare on the left and on the right is a full front portrait of Burke, and in the middle is a cemetery scene. Fantastic edge for any collector.

San cai tu hui (Illustrated encyclopedia of material) by Siyi Wang
San cai tu hui
Siyi Wang

No date. This book was sold to raise funds for Dr. William Pettus' Chinese language school in Beijing in the late 1930s to early 1940s.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers
Charles Dickens

1837. Chapman and Hall, London. First edition of this title. Lovely vertical fore-edge painting, all edges gilt.
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley's Lover 
D.H. Lawrence

1928. Rebound in full morocco by Temple Bookbinders, this copy also has a fore edge painting by Martin Frost of Lady Chatterley and Mellors.
Stories for the Household by Hans Christian Andersen
Stories for the Household 
Hans Christian Andersen

No date. With an excellent vertical fore-edge painting, surrounded by a leafy border, of three children on a sled with dog romping along beside.
Chefs-d'oeuvres du roman contemporain
Chefs-d'oeuvres du roman contemporain

1900. Each of the volumes is in full morocco gilt extra in various colors, some with inlays to bindings and each has an original fore-edge painting.

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