Fore-Edge Paintings: Beauty on the Edgeby Beth Carswell
A 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.
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 http://www.bromer.com/books_foreedge.html and The Boston Public Library at http://foreedge.bpl.org/articles
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Fore-edge Painted Books
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.
1887. Scene with hunters on horseback chasing a fox. On the top edge you can see the artist's sense of humour as the man is falling off the horse.
1883. Under the gilt is a fore-edge by Martin Frost of a Mark Twain in the centre, and in the background are the paddle boats on the Mississippi.
1883. Under the gilt is a fabulous fore-edge painting done by Martin Frost, which is signed. It is of "The Time Machine".
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.
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
1901. Magnificent fore-edge painting executed by Martin Frost after famous Edward Burne-Jones painting, "Songs of Praise".
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.
1809. The lovely fore-edge painting is of "The Death of Procris" after Piero di Cosimo and is in excellent condition.
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.
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.
1879. Has a hidden fore-edge painting of Julius Caesar with Roman warriors, in full uniform, with weapons on foot, going to battle.
1776. Devotional work on guardian angels; unusual fore-edge painting shows three scenes of guardian angels warding off the devil.
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.
1800. Rare original Edwards of Halifax binding and fore-edge painting. The scene shows an English country town.
1822. With an attractive and detailed contemporary fore-edge painting depicting Douglas, Isle of Man, the harbour ringed in hills, and more.
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.
1813. With an especially fine fore-edge painting of the Castle of Chillon and 11 works, including five firsts, by Byron.
1905. Handsomely bound in a fine signed leather binding by Bumpus Ltd., Oxford. Enhanced with a charming full colour fore-edge painting.
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
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 (sold)
1837. Chapman and Hall, London. First edition of this title. Lovely vertical fore-edge painting, all edges gilt.
Lady Chatterley's Lover
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 (sold)
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
1900. Each of the volumes is in full morocco gilt extra in various colours, some with inlays to bindings and each has an original fore-edge painting.