collections

Fore-Edge Book Paintings from the Boston Public Library

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Philidor, François-André Danican. Analysis of the game of chess. With a fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) of gentlemen playing chess — Source

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.

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The poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. With fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) of St. Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome — Source
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The Royal Kalendar, and Court and City Register, for England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Colonies, for the year 1849. London, n.d. Fore edge painting of Stonehenge (fanned to the right) — Source
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Robertson, David. A Tour through the Isle of Man, to which is subjoined a Review of the Manks History. London, E. Hodson, 1794. With a finely executed fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) of a rural scene in the neighborhood of Milton Constable, Norfolk — Source
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The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments: translated out of the original tongues; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesty’s special command. Appointed to be read in churches. Edinburgh, Printed by Sir D. H. Blair and J. Bruce, 1803. A finely executed fore-edge painting appears on each volume. Both are skillfully done copies of famous religious paintings, the first volume bearing “The Annunciation”, after Fra Lippo Lippi, and the second, featured here, “The Last Supper” after Leonardo da Vinci (fanned to the right) — Source
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The Holy Bible; ornamented with engravings by James Fittler from celebrated pictures by old masters. The letter press by Thomas Bensley. London, published by R. Bowyer and J. Fittler, 1795. With a large watercolor painting concealed under the gilt of each fore-edge (fanned to the right), that on the first volume being a representation of Adam and Eve, feature here, and that on the second volume a view of the Mount of Olives from the slopes of Zion. — Source
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Scott, Walter. Rokeby; a poem. 4th ed. Edinburgh, Printed by James Ballantyne and Co., 1813. With a finely executed painting of Barnard Castle on the fore-edge (fanned to the right) — Source
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Tasso, Torquato. Jerusalem Delivered: an Heroic Poem, volume 1, translated from the Italian of Torquato Tasso, by John Hoole. London, 1797. Beneath the gilt fore-edges of each volume are fine detailed painting (fanned to the right). The one on volume I (pictured here) is divided into three parts depicting Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs. Volume II is divided into two parts: Genoa and Venice — Source
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Maurice, Thomas. The Modern History of Hindostan, comprehending that of the Greek Empire of Bactria, and other great Asiatic kingdomns bordering on its western frontier … Vol. I London, W. Bulmer, 1802.. With a very fine fore-edge painting depicting a series of Hindu temples situated on the bank of a river, with the domes and minarets of a Mohammedan mosque in the distance (fanned to the right) — Source
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Moriae ecnomium. With a fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) beneath a gilt of decorative cherubs painted by Martin Frost — Source
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Pitt, William. The Speeches of the Right Honorable William Pitt, in the House of Commons, volume 2. 2nd edition. London, 1808. With a remarkable fine series of fore edge paintings appearing on the edges (fanned to the right) of the three volumes. Each volume bears a double fore edge painting making six in all. Each of the six paintings is divided into three parts, consisting of a central scene or view with a portrait on either side. There are in all nineteen separate subjects, one of the paintings having an extra portrait above the central scene. This volume with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin flanking a depiction of a house — Source
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Songs of the Chace, &c; containing an extensive collection relative to the sports of the field, including the several subjects of hunting, shooting, racing, coursing, angling, hawking, &c, &c. Second edition. London, Printed for Sherwood, Neely, & Jones, 1811. On the fore-edge (fanned to the right) appears a painting depicting the finish of a horse race, a fine example of a sporting fore-edge painting on a book bound by the famous Thomas Gosden, who specialized in designing appropriate bindings for books on sports. — Source
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Montgomery, James. The World before the Flood, a poem. 5th ed. London, 1819. The fore edge painting (fanned to the right) on this volume is somewhat unusual and exceptionally interesting. It depicts a scene in the days when men lived in caves, showing the male members of a family, with stone clubs, preparing to defend themselves against a mammoth and several other animals while the women and children hide in the entrance to their cave home — Source
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Select British Poets. Vol. I, The Poetical Works of John Milton; London, Jones & Co., 1825. With a painting concealed under the gilt of the fore edge (fanned to the right) of Stoke Poges, with Thomas Gray’s tomb in Stoke Park — Source
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Cowper, William. Poems, by William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq. A New edition with head and tail-pieces. London, 1808. A well executed rural scene appears on the fore edge of each volume. On the first volume (fanned to the left) is depicted a ruined church standing by a lake, on the second a lake with a farm building and church tower, visible at the right and a man fishing at left — Source
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Bewick, Thomas. A general history of the quadrupeds; the figures engraved on wood. Sixth edition. Newcastle upon Tyne, Edward Walker, 1811. With hunting scene of sportman and his dog painted on the fore-edge (fanned to the right) — Source

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The heavens : an illustrated handbook of popular astronomy, Publisher: London : R. Bentley, 1867. With fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) of Cambridge, Massachusetts observatory as viewed from across the Charles River — Source

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A rationale upon the book of common prayer of the Church of England; fore-edge of a float decoration (fanned to the left) — Source
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The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell; consisting of the Pleasures of Hope, Gertrude of Wyoming, and other poems. Paris, Printed for Baudry, 1825. On the fore edge beneath the gilt (fanned to the right) is an interesting and unusual painting. It is a scene illustrating “Gertrude of Wyoming.” This is within an oval bordered with flowers. To the left is a portrait of the author within a circle bordered with thistles — Source
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The Speeches of the Right Honorable William Pitt, in the House of Commons. 2nd edition. London, 1808. A remarkable fine series of fore edge paintings appear on the edges of the three volumes. Each volume bears a double fore edge painting (fanned to the left) making six in all. Each of the six paintings is divided into three parts, consisting of a central scene or view with a portrait on either side. There are in all nineteen separate subjects, one of the paintings having an extra portrait above the central scene. Here pictured Napoleon — Source
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Letters of Lady Rachel Russell … and the Trial of Lord William Russell for High Treason. 6th ed. Edited by Thomas Sellwood. London, Printed for J. Mawman, 1801. A fine example of Edwards binding in his characteristic style and in excellent state of preservation despite some repairs to outer joints. The fore edge painting (fanned to the right), a beautiful specimen of Edwards’ artistic skill, pictures Harewood House and the surrounding countryside — Source
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Hudibras. With annotations and preface by Zachary Grey, volume two. London, Printed by T. Bensley, 1799. With a well executed painting on the fore edge (fanned to the right) representing Hudibras paying court to his lady — Source
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Chalmers, Thomas. Sermons, preached in the Tron Church, Glasgow. Glasgow, Printed at the University Press for John Smith, etc., 1819. The fore-edge painting (fanned to the right) is a view of New York City, showing Broadway and the City Hall in the 1820’s. A very interesting and unusual subject, American scenes depicted in fore-edge paintings being quite rare — Source
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Hans Sachsens ausgewahlte werke. Man working in a shop (bottom edge) — Source. Man playing the violin (fore-edge, not fanned) — Source. Animals near a tree (bottom edge) — Source.