From the Vault: Fore-edge Painting, 1819

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 12:00pm -- Redwood Staff

Fore-edge paintings come in many different varieties. The original decorations were painted directly onto the edges of the pages, so the images were visible if the book were open or closed. Usually, these early fore-edge paintings were heraldic, done in black ink. Later, as time progressed, the paintings became more colorful and depicted all sorts of subjects.

Allegedly, Samuel Mearne, a book binder to the English royal family in the 1700s, created the “disappearing” painting that is more commonly recognized today. This is accomplished by painting on the very right-hand edge of each page of the book, with gilt on the fore-edge. In this case, the paintings can only be seen when the pages are fanned, and appear to be gilded when the book is shut. Most fore-edge painters did not sign their work, so it is hard to trace the time-period and artistry of specific people and places. However, we do know that fore-edge painting reached its height during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England – the exact time and place of this beautiful book.  

Due to this recent donation by Robert T. Galkin, the Redwood Library staff was shocked and delighted to discover another fore-edge painting. The book, The Remains of Henry Kirke White include the poems of the young writer, as well as an account of his life by Robert Southey. The fore-edge painting illustrates a winter scene, with people riding in a sleigh toward a large stone house where a couple is walking.  Although these types of paintings have been around for centuries, they provide a unique and exciting discovery upon opening the pages of this volume.

The Boston Public Library has a collection of approximately 258 books with fore-edge paintings, one of the finest collections in the country of this obscure art form.  The Redwood Library also has a small collection of fore-edge paintings, which are available for viewing and research with a reference appointment.