Fore-Edge Paintings

About a month ago, I posted an entry about book paintings, describing one artist’s interesting use of books whereby stacks of these beloved objects were used as a “canvas” to be painted upon.  Well this time around, I report on a much more antiquated, subtle, and artistically crafted use of “book-as-canvas” known as fore-edge paintings.  The fore-edge of a book is the part of the text block opposite the spine, the edge of the leaves a reader thumbs through.  Fore-edge paintings, naturally, can allude to any painting on the fore-edge, but the most common usage of the term refers a “hidden art.”  In ABC for Book Collectors, John Carter describes this art as:

an English technique quite widely practiced in the second half of the 17th century in London and Edinburgh…whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and 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 (108).

This video clip provides a quick demonstration:


For much more information on this wondrous book art, please be directed toward a website maintained by the Boston Public Library entitled On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting, which highlights a special collection of more than 200 high-resolution images of fore-edge paintings housed in their Rare Books Department.  The site contains numerous articles written by expert bibliographers regarding historical and curatorial insight into the featured selections contained therein.


Carter, John and Nicolas Barker.  ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed.  Delaware:  Oak Knoll Press.  2004.