Fore-edge Paintings

Unique book formats are widely represented in the Grosvenor Rare Book Room.  One of the most intriguing is the collection of fore-edge books.  The fore-edge of a book is the edge opposite the spine.  Although embellishment to book coverings and bindings is familiar, the painting of fore-edge books is elusive to many.   The magic is this: when the book is closed, the painting is hidden, generally behind a veil of gilt or marbling.  However, when the fore-edges of the book are fanned out, the painting becomes visible.

In order to create a fore-edge painting, the book is first held in a vice or book press with the pages fanned in one direction.  The fore-edge is then painted in watercolor.  When dry, the book is released from the press, and the edge is painted in gilt or marbling.  Unfortunately, most artists did not sign or date their work, making it difficult to know who and when a fore-edge painting was completed.  The first fore-edge paintings were of landscapes and portraits, but many artists choose scenes complementary to the book’s subject matter.  Fore-edge books are still created today.

For more information, visit the following sites:

Martin Frost, modern fore-edge artist

Boston Public Library fore-edge collection

Images, top to bottom:

Top: Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, NY painted by Franklin Barber Clark.  Fore-edge painting appears on American Statesmen (East Aurora, N.Y. : The Roycroft Shop, 1908 ) by Elbert Hubbard.  Author’s edition.  Signed by Elbert Hubbard.

Middle: Fore-edge painting appears on Poems and Essays (Bath: Printed by R. Cruttwell, 1797) by Miss Jane Bowdler.

Bottom: In this case the names of the books of the Bible are stamped in red and black along half of each edge.  Fore-edge appears on The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (London: Geo. E. Eyre and Wm. Spottiswoode, 1873?).

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