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A Collector’s Primer to the Wonders of Fore-edge Painting

One of the most unusual types of book decoration is fore-edge paintings. These are books which have one or more of the top, fore or bottom edge painted – usually with watercolors. The typical form is a book with a single fanned fore-edge painting. In the twentieth century other forms have developed, including the double fore-edge or even the remarkable six-way painting where all three sides of the book have a double.
Published on 07 Dec. 2009

Jeff Weber

One of the most unusual types of book decoration is fore-edge paintings. These are books which have one or more of the top, fore or bottom edge painted – usually with watercolors. The typical form is a book with a single fanned fore-edge painting. In the twentieth century other forms have developed, including the double fore-edge or even the remarkable six-way painting where all three sides of the book have a double. [1]

Other forms include the side-by-side painting (two scenes on the single edge), the split-double (splits the book in half and shows a scene on each fanned side (half-way up the book edge). There is the vertical painting which is found on occasion. The fanned single edge painting is the most common form. When the book is closed the painting disappears! This is because the all gilt-edged treated book will hide a painting which is actually painted on the upper (or lower) rim of the paper. Some books have a fore-edge painting on the closed edge of the book. The nineteenth-century Liverpool binder Fazakerley is most often seen using this form.

Some very famous people have enjoyed the surprise of these delightful books. Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Hester Thrale, described seeing a fore-edge painting at a small English village bookshop and bindery owned by Thomas Edwards. Her visit in 1784 was recorded in her famous diary. Horace Walpole was an early customer of Edwards and had his own home of Strawberry Hill painted on the edge of a book.

This form of embellishing a book edge is really much older than you might think. Even in medieval times one would see books of the period marked with the author’s name drawn on the edges of the paper. The most famous early example of actual painted pictures on book edges was made not by the English, but by an Italian named Cesare Vecellio (ca.1530-1600), who was cousin of the great painter Titian. He was commissioned to paint on books in the Pillone Library, later owned by the renowned English collector Sir Thomas Brooke (1830-1908).

In the mid-seventeenth century, English binders began their own form of edge decorating. During this time – never seen in England before – edges were painted with highly decorative motifs, including flowers, butterflies, royal portraits, armorial bearings, or religious images. These decorations were applied to the finest bindings for only rich commissions given to binders from cities like London, Oxford and Cambridge.

John Brindley, bookseller, publisher and binder, was appointed binder to Queen Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737). He continued the tradition of painting fore-edges into the mid-eighteenth century. But styles changed as the Reformation period closed. For a period of about thirty years no fore-edge paintings are thought to have been made.

Edwards of Halifax changed fore-edge painting history for good when bindings from this firm became famous for the sumptuous beauty, skill and artistry. Edwards establish three new binding styles which they patented in 1785. Two of these were trade secrets. All three took advantage of art which was popular of the time: the neo-Grecian scenes, English walking tours of the countryside, and the relishing of English life. Thus was founded the Etruscan calf binding with Greek palmettes surrounding the binding panels. Edwards also founded the technique of drawing under white vellum which was rendered transparent by a special process. The scenes under vellum were the pride of the bindery and they boasted that these drawings could not be affected by water or wear. When coupled with a fore-edge painting depicting an English country estate, Mount Vesuvius, Eton College, Coaghill Hall, Fountains Abbey, or even the Last Supper, the binding was indeed quite special. In other words the Edwards bindings were elegant, unique and they succeeded in both reflecting the culture of their day and achieving great success for the Edwards family. A book with a hand-painted fore-edge on the fanned edge could become a wonderful gift for a lady, or a wedding present for a relative.

How can you learn more about fore-edge paintings?

The history of fore-edge paintings is steeped in mystery – mostly due to the remarkable work of innumerable anonymous artists who spanned the centuries. Some are indeed known, but time has certainly hidden from us the identities of those English & American artisans who applied their craft to the edges of books from the 1640s to the present. Besides the question of “who” painted these curious works, one also should consider “when” they were painted. Often the clues as to the origin of any particular piece may be unfounded. Thus part of the fun of collecting these books is to try and discover their past.

English bookbinding historians like G. D. Hobson, Howard Nixon, Dr. Mirjam M. Foot, and Philippa Marks are among the most authoritative writers and scholars on the history of English bookbindings.

Many fore-edge paintings were also created by independent artists who have been making fore-edge paintings on books long after they were bound. Unfortunately some of these artists’ works have been called fakes since they are changing the intention of the binder’s original design. Yet some are also highly skilled artists who are notable for their own work in this craft. A few fore-edge painting artists are active today and by seeing what fore-edges are on the market one can get an idea of the latest in fore-edge decorations.

The first history of fore-edge paintings was Carl J. Weber’s, A Thousand and One Fore-edge Paintings, Waterville: Colby College Press, 1949. The book serves as a suitable introduction to the history of these books. A second edition was issued in 1966. Various articles and newspaper accounts are among other resources. In addition, several basic books on book collecting cover the topic, including John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors (8th edition edited by Nicolas Barker), and G. Glaister’s Glossary of the Book. Recently published is a new book on fore-edge paintings. One can obtain an unusual full-depth history of one important English fore-edge artist named John T. Beer (d. 1903) who was also a book collector, undertaker, tailor, poet and writer. This new book is written by myself, entitled, The Fore-edge Paintings of John T. Beer, (2006) and it includes a catalogue raisonné of all Beer’s known fore-edge paintings.[2] This book is the first complete history of a fore-edge painting artist and even answers questions as to exactly when Beer painted on books in his own library. Finally this book also studies the distribution of Beer’s fore-edge books – from the sale of his library more than one hundred years ago – to today, where locations are given where-ever possible and all references to each book as they appeared for sale in bookseller or auction catalogues as well as in articles or books about book history.

To see some fore-edge paintings, one can turn to the great libraries of both America and Britain. Check into the British Library or the Bodleian. Try seeing these books at the Boston Public Library or the New York Public, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and even the Folger Shakespeare Library. In Baltimore see the Knox collection at the Loyola Notre-Dame campus library. The largest collection ever formed is at the Swem Library of William & Mary College. In the west see the collections of the Huntington Library, UCLA, USC, Stanford University, Berkeley, and a fine and extensive collection at the San Diego Public Library. Don’t forget the University of Colorado, the Lilly Library at Indiana University and HRC at the University of Texas. They can be seen just about anywhere.

Booksellers who often have fore-edge paintings for sale include Jeff Weber[3] Rare Books, Bromer Booksellers, James Cummins, David Brass, Phillip J Pirages, Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts, John Windle, The Family Album, First Folio, James Cummins, Kelmscott Bookshop, Rulon-Miller Books, Hermitage Book Shop, and in London see Adrian Harrington and Maggs. Visiting an ABAA International Book Fair can be a rewarding place to see fore-edge paintings. Book auctions all over America and England offer opportunities to buy these books. Of course it is advisable to see the book and painting you hope to buy, and ask questions everywhere.

What about the future of fore-edge paintings?

Artists have certainly not tired of making new specimens. More histories from this author are in the works! Coming up next year is a full study of the fore-edge paintings of Miss C. B. Currie. Included in this book will be a dictionary of known binders and artists who have made fore-edge paintings. This will be followed up by a second book on the work of one of America’s most famous fore-edge artists, Miss Vera Dutter. Each of these works will offer a great deal of insight and new information contributing to the history of fore-edge painting.


[1] A double fore-edge painting is seen by first fanning the book one way (say to the right), and then close the book and fan it the opposite way (to the left). If the artist painted on the top and bottom outer edge of the paper, then a painting will appear when fanned either way.

[2] Weber, Jeff, The Fore-edge Paintings of John T. Beer, a biographical & historical essay followed by a catalogue raisonné based on the sale of his library. With a prologue: The ABC’s of Fore-edge Painting. Los Angeles: Jeff Weber Rare Books, 2006.

[3] Jeff Weber Rare Books has issued four antiquarian bookseller catalogues completely devoted to fore-edge paintings and each is fully illustrated. His Catalogue One featured a selection of fore-edge books from the Doheny Library of Camarillo, and Catalogue Eight featured another private collector’s holdings.

The article is published on, and presented here by permission of the author and the ABAA. The author can be reached by writing to Jeff Weber, PO Box 3368, Glendale, California, 91221.

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