A "fore-edge painting" is an illustration or design which appears on the "fore-edge" of a book (i.e. on the edge which is opened up, opposite to the spine). The history of such embellishments is thought to go back to the tenth century but it wasn't until the eighteenth century that the unusual practice really began to take off. The simplest form involved painting onto the fore-edge when the book was closed normally — hence the image appears by default — but a more advanced form involved a rather ingenious technique whereby the painting was applied to the page edges when the stack was fanned at a slight angle. This way the image is hidden from view when the book is closed normally. To hide any remnants of this secret image the exposed edge of the book, when closed normally, was gilded (or sometimes marbled). In his 1949 essay "On Fore-Edge Painting of Books" Kenneth Hobson came up with this rather nice metaphor to explain: "Imagine a flight of stairs, each step representing a leaf of the book. On the tread would be the painting and on the flat surface would be gold. A book painted and gilt in this way must be furled back before the picture can be seen."
Bookbinders, such as Edwards of Halifax, got even cleverer with variations of the technique, producing books with "double fore-edge paintings", where one image would be revealed when the book was fanned one way, and a second image revealed when fanned the other. "Triple fore-edge paintings" are where a third image is added instead of gilt or marbling. "Panoramic fore-edge paintings" utilise the top and bottom and edges to make continuous panoramic scenes. "Split double paintings" have two different illustrations, one on either side of the book's centre, meaning that when the book is laid open in the middle, each is seen on either side. Very rare and skilled variations of the art only reveal the image when the the pages of the book are pinched or tented in a certain way.
Most often the artwork would reflect the content of the book (as shown in the chess example above). Sometimes it would depict the owner (through a portrait or picture of their home). And occasionally it would be oddly incongruous, such as The Poetical Works of John Milton being adorned with a painting of the tomb of Thomas Gray.
One of the finest collections of fore-edge paintings is held at Boston Public Library, which you can see on their Flickr, and on a dedicated website, which includes an introductory essay by Anne C. Bromer of Bromer Booksellers, who along with her husband gifted this wonderful collection to the Boston Public Library. In this post we've featured our highlights from their collection.