Fore-edge Paintings on Manuscripts
By Elizabeth Wheeler
A fore-edge painting can be described as a small but often heavily detailed piece of art that is drawn or painted on the edges of the pages of a book in a manner in which the full image can only be seen when the book is closed and the leaves of the book are fanned out. At first glance on a shelf the book could seem just as ordinary as any other book but by fanning out the leaves and exposing every edge of every page a never before seen image would then appear. There are a variety of forms of fore-edge paintings including, a single for-edge which the painting is on only one side of the book page edges as well as a double fore-edge painting which shows a different image when the book is fanned in either direction. There are also triple fore-edge paintings as well as split double paintings and even more amazing and complicated variations were the leaves would need to be pinched or bent in a particular manner for different scenes to appear!
The history of fore-edge paintings isn't exactly clear, with examples of the style being seen dating as far back at the 10th century. These very early versions were mostly simple images done in gold ink. The first example of the ever popular disappearing fore-edge painting was seen in 1649 and then the easiest one that was signed as dated was a family coat of arms done in 1653 on a 1651 family bible. It was because most fore-edge painter and book binders did not sign their work that we have so much trouble dating the times that these pieces were done. The painting is often an extra that is added on many years after the original binding of the book
The fore-edge painting was often seen on copies of books from personal libraries, done during a time in which having a personal collection of books was a sign of great wealth and people were as you would assume, very protective of their books. It was likely because of this fact that a bit of a legend grew to surround the idea of how the first fore edge painting came to be. It was said that Charles the II who was the King of England, lent a book to a Duchess after having commissioned the court painter to make it so he would always be able to identify his books if needed. After some time, while visiting the Duchess the King noticed his book on herself and pulled it down, preparing to take the book back home with him. The Duchess tried to say that, that particular book was, in fact, hers. The King slyly smiled and spread the leaves of the book to display his coat of arms, painted on the fore edge of the book but completely hidden to the naked eye by the books gilded edges.
In the mid-1700’s we see the images painted on fore-edges begin to evolve from ones that we're simply decorative and into beautiful landscapes and religious scenes, often painted in full color. One of the more infamous people to use this technique was John Brindley. The majority of the books with fore-edge paintings that we have today date from around the late 19th century and into the 20th, Fore-edge paintings continue to be popular and more modern versions depict popular scenes from the books on which they are placed. Fore-edge paintings allow for a little bit of extra hidden mystery to be added to a book. They often cause delight when found and are a wonderful way to include an image in a text-based narrative.
Bromer, Anne C. "Fore Edge Painting - An Introduction". On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting. Boston Public Library.
Dutter, Vera, E. "The Ancient Art of Fore-Edge Painting" American Artist, January 1969.
Weber, Carl J. Fore-Edge Painting, A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration. 1966.