Blogathon: “Biblio-archaelogy”: Digging through Special Collections

 By Charlotte Edwards


Exploring Fore-Edge Painting in the Hepburn Bequest

In February, as part of my Museum Studies MSc, I began a project to investigate several books in the library’s Special Collections that carried a form of decoration about which little was known.  Here is what I discovered:

A (Very) Brief History of Fore-edge Painting

Taken literally, the term ‘fore-edge painting’ refers to any painted decoration applied to the fore-edge of the text block (i.e the edge of the pages opposite the book’s spine).

1600s: The earliest fore-edge paintings were painted straight onto the flat edge when the book was closed. These early works often indicated ownership and featured decorative motifs such as flowers, armorial crests and heraldic symbols.

1700s: The fore-edge paintings that interest us are slightly different: known as ‘disappearing’ or ‘peekaboo’ paintings, they were popularised in the mid eighteenth-century by the binders and booksellers ‘The Edwards of Halifax’.

Created by clamping the book in an open position with the leaves fanned to one side and painting upon the resulting bevelled edge of the text block, these paintings are not visible when the book is closed.

1800s: Scenes painted expanded beyond the picturesque landscapes popularised by Gilpin in the late eighteenth century. Busier scenes of hunting and fishing became popular. By the end of the century fore-edges began to be painted specifically to make unsalable books more attractive to buyers.


Fore-edge paintings: a lost and ancient art?

The bookseller’s tendency to refer to fore-edge paintings as a ‘lost art’ and attribute examples to the early eighteenth century has been noted by both Carl and Jeff Weber.  By surveying a vast amount of the appropriately decorated texts, they show that not only is the art far from lost, and even continues to this day, but indeed that many examples are in fact twentieth century imitations of the eighteenth and nineteenth century style of book embellishment. As the leading expert in the field puts it:

“The ‘Golden Age’ of fore-edge painting is romantically placed in the period of Edwards of Halifax and those that soon followed them. However the real zenith of fore-edge production was during the early twentieth century, even extending to the present, when a vast number of specimens were created” (J Weber 21)

Fore-edge painting may not be a lost art, but is certainly an under-researched aspect of book decoration, with only three published works on the subject. Carl Weber published two books about them in 1949 and 1966 with the second being a reworking of his first book rather than entirely new work. Years later, his grandson Jeff Weber examined a vast number of fore-edge paintings in order to create the Annotated Dictionary of Fore-edge Painting Artists & Binders: The Fore-edge Paintings of Miss C. B. Currie with a catalogue raisonné published in 2010. With the majority of knowledge about these paintings coming from just two men, it is clear that this is a topic ripe for further investigation.

Through close examination of the books held by special collections and heavy reliance on Jeff Weber’s annotated dictionary, I can confirm that the majority of our holdings hark from the twentieth century. However this does not necessarily reflect badly on the quality of the work itself and several of our examples are extremely fine pieces of craftsmanship, and all are interesting in their own right. In fact, sometimes the most poorly executed piece can have the most fascinating story behind it.

To see all images from the Hepburn collection (and two Euings) and discover who painted them, check out the flickr set at:

Hepburn 61 Right facing fore-edge painting of an ancient greek scene. Artist unknown

 Identifying Fore-Paintings: Handy Hints and Tips

Think you’ve found a fore-edge painting and want to figure out how old it is, or even who painted it? Some do’s and don’ts :

DON’T assume the painting is contemporary with the publication or binding date: paintings can have been added to the book at any point in its life. Likewise, inscriptions and dedications may not be accurate clues either: ‘Joe Bloggs 1763’ may have owned the book, but that doesn’t mean he also owned the fore-edge painting.

DO compare and contrast with other examples. The three Weber books will help you with this. If you can’t get hold of copies:

a)      come to Special Collections as they hold 1001 Fore-edges and An Annotated Dictionary as reference copies

b)      try flickr. There you can see our examples and a whole host of fore-edges from other institutions and individuals

DO know your handwriting: a little bit of palaeography can go a long way. The term ‘fore-edge painting’ is relatively recent, so if an inscription uses that phrase it is likely a twentieth century addition. However if you come across the older term ‘painting on the edge of the leaves’ and it appears to be in an eighteenth century hand then you can be more confident the painting is of that period.

DO bear in mind that the latest thinking suggests that any kind of ‘trick’ fore-edge such as doubles or ones that continue around the other edges of the leaves are almost certainly from the nineteen-twenties or beyond.



Many thanks are due to Lou Robertson and Alex Doak for their invaluable assistance in helping capturing images of the elusive disappearing paintings. Without them, there would be no flickr set.

Works Cited

Weber, Jeff.  An Annotated Dictionary of Fore-edge Painting Artists & Binders: The Fore-edge Paintings of Miss C. B. Currie with a catalogue raisonné . Los Angeles: Jeff Weber Rare Books, 2010.

Works Consulted

Weber, Carl. 1001 Fore-edge paintings: with Notes on the Artists, Bookbinders, Publishers and other Men and Women Connected with the History of a Curious Art. Waterville : Colby College Press, 1949.

Weber, Carl. Fore-edge painting: a historical survey of a curious art in book decoration. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. : Harvey House, 1966.

Further Reading for the Curious

The Lilly Library at Indiana University have produced a lovely webpage about fore-edge paintings in their collection:

The Boston library also have a great online exhibit:

And a  flickr set:

Categories: Library, Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

6 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Do like a nice fore-edge painting, and this is one of the most erudite examinations of them out there:

  2. Reblogged this on Cardmon's Blog and commented:
    Excellent, a fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of the book.


  1. The Ways Victorian Book Designs Win Our Hearts | Story by ModCloth
  2. The Ways Victorian Book Designs Win Our HeartsThe Berlin Vagabond | The Berlin Vagabond
  3. The Ways Victorian Book Designs Win Our Hearts | Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: