Fore-Edge Paintings: Hidden Treasures

How many times have you been told that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? As a librarian, I fully endorse this sentiment. I would, however, like to create a related maxim: you can’t judge a closed book by its fore-edge. What’s a fore-edge, you ask? In book-speak, that’s the name for the edge opposite the spine. Hidden beneath the gilt or marbled covering on some books’ fore-edges, you just may discover a most exquisite watercolor.

The years between 1785 and 1835 stand as the golden age of fore-edge paintings, largely thanks to the activities of William Edwards of Halifax, England, and his sons, James and Thomas. Scholars credit William with developing the technique of painting the fanned out pages of a book with watercolors and then overlaying the edge with a covering of gold. When the book is closed, the painting is entirely hidden, only becoming visible when the reader gently fans the pages. Rarely, a book may be graced with double fore-edge paintings, where one painting is revealed when the pages are fanned left and another when the pages are fanned right.

Books of poetry, religious books, Greek and Latin classics, and travel books were deemed most appropriate for this type of adornment. The fore-edge paintings for these books typically reflected the content of the volume—romantic settings, authors’ portraits, religious scenes, landscapes, or sporting scenes. Books with fore-edge paintings became coveted souvenirs for American tourists traveling abroad. The fore-edge paintings in the collection of The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play were probably acquired on one of many trips to England and Europe by the museum’s founder, Margaret Strong, and her parents, Alice and John Woodbury.

As the demand and commercial value for these books increased, artists began to reuse popular designs that no longer bore any relation to the content of the book. Worse, unscrupulous artists added fore-edge paintings to early editions of books and then sold them to unsuspecting buyers as originals. This unfortunate practice continued well into the 20th century. These circumstances make it difficult to determine whether a fore-edge painting dates from the same period as its printing. As a result, collectors place considerable value on knowing the history of the book’s previous ownership, along with the quality of the painting and its condition.

Whatever their vintage, fore-edge paintings offer the pleasure of discovering a painting hidden in plain sight. With a simple fan of the pages, an ordinary book can disclose the surprise of a painting where you’d never think to look.

The three books featured in the video above are The poetical works of Oliver Goldsmith, Half-hour lectures on the history and practice of the fine and ornamental arts, and The complaint : or, Night thoughts on life, death, and immortality. Want to learn more? Fore-Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration by Carl J. Weber is an excellent place to start.