Ask A Librarian

Secret Book Art: Fore-Edge Paintings

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
November 3rd, 2014

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.


Did you know that some books with gilt edges (edges covered with gold leaf or paint, like the pages shown below) contain secret art?  As far back as the 10th century, artists painted designs on the edges of book pages; many surviving examples of these paintings are on books that have gilt edges.  The images, called fore-edge paintings, tend to be painted on the book’s fore-edge, which is the edge opposite the book’s spine.


Gilt edges on a book


Carter and Barker’s ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006. p. 108, available as a PDF here) provides a good explanation of fore-edge painting:


“… The term is most commonly used, however, for an English technique … whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and then held fast, is decorated with painted views or conversation pieces. The edges are then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remains concealed (and protected) while the book is closed: fan out the edges and it reappears.”


Some fore-edge paintings depict scenes that are related to the contents of the book, while some do not.  In addition to the typical fore-edge paintings that depict only one scene, there are also double fore-edge paintings (where two scenes are painted so that one painting is visible when the leaves are fanned one way, and the second is visible when the leaves are fanned the other way), and triple fore-edge paintings (like double fore-edge paintings, except there is a third painting on the edges of the pages where gilt would normally be).


To see a fore-edge painting being revealed, check out this 16-second video that shows how fanning the pages of a book can uncover the art inside.   Please remember:  if you want to check a gilt-edged book to see if it conceals a fore-edge painting, be gentle!  Fore-edge painting was especially popular in the 1700s and 1800s; book spines, covers, and pages should be treated with care.


Want to watch an artist create a fore-edge painting?  Take a look at this video of “Fantastically Fast Fore-edge Painting by Stephen Bowers” from the Friends of the State Library of South Australia.  You can see the vise that painters need to use to create such masterpieces.


The WVU Libraries’ Rare Book Room has five fore-edge paintings in its book collection.  Below are photos of each one, fanned out for us to view by our Rare Book Librarian, Stewart Plein.


Fore-edge painting of Harpers Ferry

Fore-edge painting of Jefferson Rock, Harper Ferry, WV.
From volume 1 of Social Distinction; or, Hearts and Homes, by Sarah Stickney Ellis. (London, New York: J. & F. Tallis, 1848.)

Fore-edge painting of Natural Bridge, VA

Fore-edge painting of Natural Bridge, VA.
From volume 2 of Social Distinction; or, Hearts and Homes.

Fore-edge painting of Rolling Mill at Antietam

Fore-edge painting of the Rolling Mill at Antietam, in Maryland.
From volume 3 of Social Distinction; or, Hearts and Homes.

Fore-edge painting of Salisbury Cathedral

Fore-edge painting showing a view of Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England.
From Bibliomania: Or Book Madness; a Bibliographical Romance, in Six Parts; Illustrated with Cuts, by Thomas Frognall Dibdin. (London: Printed for the Author, by J. M’Creery, and sold by Messrs. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811.)

Fore-edge painting of street scene

Fore-edge painting showing an unidentified street scene (if you recognize this scene, let us know what it is!)
From The Poetical Works of George Lord Lyttelton: With Additions to Which Prefixed an Account of His Life, by George L. Lyttelton. (London: Printed for Cadell and Davies, etc., 1801.)

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