By Stephen Foster
Discovering a fore-edge painting is always a pleasant surprise. When I first started my bookselling apprenticeship, it was one of the first things I was told to look out for (along with interesting bookplates, and ephemera tucked into the books).
If you have not come across fore-edge paintings, let me first explain what they are.
If you are holding a book in your hand, then the fore-edge is the long edge you can flick through, or fan out. Fore-edge painting refers to any painted decoration of this fore edge. The artist slightly fans out this edge, it is secured or held in a vice, and decorates it with a painted view, or portrait or historical scene. In earlier examples, the painting was applied, and then the fore edge was gilded (gold leaf is applied). In later examples, a book with an already gilded fore-edge - usually a fine leather binding - has the painting applied after it is bound. In both cases, when the book is returned to its closed state, the painting is concealed by the gilding; fan out the edges, and the painting reappears.
The Italian Renaissance is, as with many things, where it all really started (although medieval examples exist). Often quite simple, floral decorations, heraldic designs or motifs, these were generally painted directly onto the fore-edge rather than later ‘fanned’ edge, sometimes with a gold background. These were not uncommon in 15th and 16th century Italy. But the term is now largely used to refer to the British examples of this art. Disappearing pictures start to appear, as it were, on mid 17th century English bibles and common prayer books. By the latter part of the 17th century, very fine works were being produced.
However, the pinnacle of this art was in the late 18th century revival and popularisation of the art by the bookbinders and booksellers Edwards of Halifax. They produced exquisite paintings on the edges, as well as beautiful ‘Etruscan calf’ and painted vellum bindings. London Society was wowed by the beautiful volumes, and the Edwards And Sons shop in Pall Mall is mentioned by Fanny Burney (also known as Madame d'Arblay), the 18th century London socialite who wrote an extensive diary as well as various novels.
The practice of fore-edge painting became widespread, and continued through the 19th and into the 20th century. Demand has always outstripped supply, and this meant that decorating the fore-edge continues to this day. These later examples tend to be applied after the book is bound and the fore-edge gilded, but they are still beautiful and surprising things. Themes vary, with landscapes, portraits, historical subjects, sporting and erotic images all being used. There are also ‘double’ or two-way paintings, with views visible when the book is fanned either way. I once saw a volume that showed mountaineers scaling a peak, and both the top and bottom edge had also been used to show the peak, and the base camp.
Original examples are very hard to find and a good provenance will make these very expensive items. Late 19th and 20th century examples can be found for a few hundred pounds, with the quality of both the binding and image setting the price.
Where to find them? Well they could be found on almost any book with a gilded fore-edge - poetry, history, travel, classics, bibles are some to look out for. There are many poor amateur examples, that can disappoint, and many pleasing modern examples. So when you see a bookseller picking up a leather bound book and fanning the fore-edge, even though he’s not often actually looking for one, he knows that if it’s there, that is the way to reveal the secret.
Further examples of fore-edge paintings can be seen at:
Horace W. Sturgis Library, Kenneshaw State University, Georgia and
University of Florida Rare Book Collection
(Published on the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA), presented here by permission of the ABA.)