Fore-edge paintings are illustrations worked, usually by watercolor, onto the exposed long edge of pages in a book. When the book is closed, the image or images are usually not visible, but when the pages are fanned out, an intricate and detailed scene suddenly appears.
Illustrations and designs painted onto the edge of book pages date back as far as the 10th century, but artists began concealing them through the fanning process in the mid-1600s. To paint on the fanned edges of a book requires the use of a fore-edge press, which holds the pages in the fanned-out position; one of these tools can be used both to create the illustration and to display it.
This technique was originally used as a way to connect certain books to their owners or institutions, something like a library stamp, but gradually turned into a way of adding something special to books, which were at the time valuable and rare, and often treated as heirlooms. Images tend to be related to the subject of the book—for example, a book of Scottish poetry might have a fore-edge painting of golfers at the famous Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Fife. Other paintings could be religious or even erotic.
Special Collections has a library of books with paintings on their fore-edges, and we have photographed them and put the images into our Digital Collections for easy viewing at this link.
One painting we’d like to highlight is the one on the edge of The Heavens: The Seasons, by Robert Mudie, written in 1836 on the subject of astronomy. The photo below shows the fore-edge painting itself. An old astronomer is fascinated with something in the telescope in his study, surrounded by books and other tools, while his dog looks on. In a humorous background event on the left side of the room, though, the artist painted the doorway into the astronomer’s bedroom, where his wife and apprentice are having sex while he is distracted, and making a cuckold of him.