Fore-edge painting: The book as canvas

I’ve written a feature on books as art, but what about art on books? Although bindings themselves can sometimes be works of art (not that you’re not likely to find those for sale at your local bookstore), sometimes the book itself—specifically, the text block—can be used as a canvas, as in fore-edge painting.

What is fore-edge painting?

In the simplest terms, fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edge of a book. Often, books with fore-edge paintings look perfectly normal when closed. However, once the pages are fanned, the fore-edge painting becomes visible. As with many aspects of the book arts, fore-edge painting is best understood through example:

Fore-edge painting, closed

When the book is closed/unfanned, only the gilt edge is visible. (suldpg, “The lay of the last minstrel, a poem; by Walter Scott.” March 11, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution.

Fore-edge painting, fanned

The fore-edge painting becomes visible when the pages are fanned. (suldpg, “The lay of the last minstrel, a poem; by Walter Scott.” March 11, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution.

When the book is opened, a tiny sliver of the fore-edge painting can be seen on each page. (suldpg, “The lay of the last minstrel, a poem; by Walter Scott.” March 11, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution.

You can watch a fore-edge painting being revealed here:

Bookbinding and the conservation of books: A dictionary of descriptive terminology (Roberts and Etherington) provides an excellent, fuller description of fore-edge painting, including a brief history. In short, although fore-edge painting may date back as far as the tenth century, the majority of these paintings were created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of them were created to satisfy collector demand.

How are fore-edge paintings made?

The concept is simple, although the execution certainly requires much patience and skill. Essentially, a book with thin, trimmed edges is clamped with the pages fanned, to prevent them from shifting while the art is produced. (Hopefully, the book is not left in this state too long; otherwise, it could become misshapen.) A sliver of each page is exposed, and this surface will serve as the canvas. At this point, the exact process is up to the individual artist—but it’s not uncommon for an outline to be sketched out before the actual painting begins. Layers of color are slowly built up until the final image appears. Sometimes the image will then be outlined, to increase the level of detail or clarity. A border is also sometimes added. Once the art has been completed and has fully dried, the book is unclamped and allowed to return to its natural (i.e., unfanned) state.

What kind of variations are there?

In many cases, a single fore-edge painting is used (i.e., there is a painting on only one margin of the book), and the edges are gilt or marbled. However, in some cases, a double fore-edge painting is used; in this case, the book’s pages can be fanned in either direction to reveal a painting. As a third option, rather than being gilt or marbled, the edge of the book can be given a painting of its own—and, compounding on this, this painting can be wrapped around the head and tail edges of the book, creating a panoramic effect.

Where can I see more?

A number of wonderful libraries have been kind enough to digitize some of their holdings with fore-edge paintings. Locally, there’s the Boston Public Library’s exhibit On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting (also on Flickr). Indiana University’s Lilly Library and  the Rare Books and Manuscripts unit of the Johns Hopkins University have also put online some of their collection items. Finally, artist Martin Frost—who is still producing fore-edge paintings today—has a number of specimens up on his website, as well as some video examples and other information.


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