A scene painted on the edges of the book pages is called a fore-edge painting. This sort of painting can have two primary forms: paintings on edges that have been fanned and paintings on edges that are closed. The former can be viewed only with the leaves of the book fanned while the latter is painted directly on the surface of the book edge. In case of the fanned painting the watercolor is applied directly to the top or bottom margin of the page but not to the actual “fore”-edge itself. A single fore-edge painting covers just one side of the book page edges. Once the painting has been dried gilt or marbling is usually applied by the bookbinder to make the painting completely invisible when the book is closed.
There can also be a double fore-edge painting on both sides of the page margin. In this case one painting can be seen when the leaves are fanned one way, and the other becomes visible when the leaves are fanned the other way. Finally there is a triple fore-edge painting that apart from paintings on the edges is applied right to the edges. Sometimes edge paintings represent continuous scenes covering more than one edge. These are called panoramic fore-edge painting or a ‘triple edge painting’.
The first fore-edge paintings appeared in the 10th century and represented symbolic designs. Early English fore-edge paintings dating back to the 14th century depicted heraldic designs, often in gold color. The first disappearing fore-edge painting which is not visible when the book is closed dates back to 1649.
Since 1750 fore-edge paintings started depicting not only decorative or heraldic designs but also landscapes, portraits and religious scenes, painted in full color. Contemporary fore-edge paintings feature scenes with various subjects that differ from the early ones, including scenes from novels and erotic scenes. The scene usually related to the content of the book, but sometimes it did not. The choice of scenes depended on the preferences of the artist, bookseller or owner so the same New Brunswick landscape, for example, could decorate both a Bible and a collection of poetry and plays.
The bulk of the intact fore-edge paintings date to the late 19th and early 20th century and are found on reproductions of books published in the beginning of the 19th century.
Currently two British artists specialize in the fore-edge art form: Martin Frost and Clare Brooksbank. Consider checking out the reference book of L. Jeff Weber for a complete list of all names of artists and binders working in this art form, including the contemporary artists.
In the U.S. a complete database of fore-edge paintings just doesn’t exist. At present the College of William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library houses the Ralph H. Wark Collection that numbers 709 fore-edge paintings.
One of the largest collections of the U.S., with 258 rare fore-edge paintings, is in the Boston Public Library. Another great collection, the Estelle Doheny Collection, is displayed in the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California.