The Secret World of Fore-Edge Book Paintings


There’s nothing we love more than an old, handsomely bound book. Much to our delight, the University of Iowa recently published a series of photographs detailing a four-volume set of scientific books from 1837. They contain secret artworks, known as fore-edge paintings, hidden along the edges of the pages. It’s a whimsical art form that dates back to the 16th century, when Italian artist Cesare Vecellio (cousin of Renaissance painter Titian) started using his books as a canvas in order to beautify them. As the artistry of edge paintings developed, they became more complex and fanciful, the painted scenes visible only when the pages were fanned. In some cases, a different image would appear when fanned back to front and front to back. We went searching for other examples of this beautiful art form, which is being kept alive by a select few today.

Each book in this four-volume series (1837) by Robert Mudie revealed a painting of the seasons.

The Boston Public Library YouTube channel has a lovely series of videos that reveal several fore-edge paintings (set to spectacularly spooky music). See a handmaiden by a lake and a man fishing, both painted along the gilt edges of these 19th-century tomes.

This copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost is improved with this early 19th-century fore-edge painting of a London river scene.

There are several libraries and rare book houses around the world where you can see fore-edge paintings in person, including the Ralph H. Wark Collection at the Earl Gregg Swem Library in Virginia. The research center is home to over 700 books with fore-edge paintings, including several with vertical portraits and double-edge paintings (two images visible when the pages are fanned in different directions).

Image credit: Martin Frost

Image credit: Martin Frost

Artist and bookbinder Martin Frost has created fore-edge paintings since 1970 (over 3,300 artworks). His illustrations are featured in museums around the world. We love his portrait series and miniature painting collection. Be sure to check out this special display stand that Frost created for his work.

Get up close and personal with the fore-edge watercolors at the Grand Valley State University Library in Michigan. You can practically feel the pages tickling your fingers while browsing their digital collection database.

Image credit: Clare Brooksbank

Image credit: Clare Brooksbank

Clare Brooksbank’s fore-edge paintings on antiquarian books have been prominently displayed. She seems to prefer classical subjects, with an emphasis on mythological and literary women.

Based on size alone, this is an impressive piece of fore-edge art that reveals an expansive landscape with multiple, large-scale figures.

Traditionally, fore-edge paintings were composed with watercolors, but artist Ed Ruscha commissioned a contemporary version of the art form for his limited-edition 2002 book ME and THE . Atelier Graphicstudio screeprinted text along the gilt edges, as seen in this video (shortly after the five-minute mark).

Fine book collector Phillip Pirages offers an informative 30-minute video talk about the art of fore-edge book paintings, with plenty of antiquarian eye candy and fascinating literary anecdotes.