Hidden In Plain Sight: A Brief History Of Fore-edge Painting Hidden In Plain Sight: A Brief History Of Fore-edge Painting

John Ansley, M.A., M.L.S.

This paper is intended to introduce the unfamiliar to the delightful art of fore-edge painting. In particular, it will discuss the development of the “hidden” fore-edge painting, for which the term fore-edge painting is most commonly used. The following narrative features examples from both the George M. and Alice Gill and George M. and Frances L. Gill Fore-Edge Painting Collections, which are held in the Marist College Archives and Special Collections in Poughkeepsie. Mr. George M. Gill generously donated his collection of thirty-six fore-edge paintings to Marist College in 1996 in memory of his late wife, Alice Gill. In 2005 Mrs. Frances Gill donated her collection of eighteen foreedge paintings in memory of her late husband, George M. Gill.

The Gill Collections represent one of the pinnacles in the history of book decoration and book binding, and are the highlights of our Rare Book Collection. The collection consists of fifty-four volumes (forty-four titles) that were published between 1798 and 1909 in England, the United States, and France.



After seeing a fore-edge painting for the first time, one truly understands John Carter’s statement in ABC for Book Collectors that a “bibliomaniac is a book collector with a slightly wild look in his eye” (Carter 38). While there is no substitute for seeing a fore-edge painting in-person, the above illustration may prove useful.

The term “fore-edge painting” is generally used for an English book-decoration technique that was commonly practiced in the second half of the seventeenth century in London and Edinburgh. In the eighteenth century, the Edwards family of Halifax brought fore-edge painting to new levels of execution and popularity. The Edwardses revived the practice “whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and then held fast in a clamp or vise, was decorated with painted views or conversation pieces. The edges were then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remained concealed (and protected) while the book was closed: fan out the edges and it reappears” (Carter 104).

Two main theories concerning the development of fore-edge painting have been put forward: the “library-position” and the “craftsmanship” (Swan 14). The former dates back to the Middle Ages, when the pages of books were made of parchment or vellum and tended to be large and cumbersome; because of this, they were often shelved flat on their sides, with the edge of the text block facing out. (The relatively thick parchment and vellum pages allowed bookbinders to fold the full sheets of the quires only once, thus creating a folio volume.) This practice of shelving the books horizontally with the page edges facing out offered the owner or librarian a convenient space to place a mark of ownership or the title of the volume. As papermaking developed and it became practical for use by bookmakers, this new and more malleable material allowed them to create smaller volumes, which meant that their owners could shelve the books vertically. The spine of the book then became the logical place for the title, and the fore-edge lent itself as a place to identify the volume’s owner. Simple name-writing developed into more elaborate decorations, including family mottoes, coats of arms, royal monograms, and crests. When applied, the decorations were painted or stamped onto the edge with a hot tool (Weber 21-22).

The “craftsmanship” theory was put forward by Cyril Davenport and “assumes that the painting of book-edges is the natural outgrowth of the desire of the bookbinders to decorate the whole book” (Swan 15-16). Considering that some of the earliest examples of books were decorated, it is not unreasonable to assume that some bookbinders felt that leaving the fore-edge of the text block blank meant their work was unfinished. Perhaps a combination of these theories explains the origin of fore-edge decoration.


The artists who executed these unusual paintings were intimately involved with the book-binding process. They tended to prefer working with smaller volumes, as this produced a better effect when the picture was revealed. The text block was positioned so the fore-edge was to the right if you were holding the book as if to Hidden In Plain Sight: A Brief History Of Fore-edge Painting 71read it. This is considered the “right way” of positioning the book before the fore-edge painting was applied (Weber 60). Before the fore-edge painting was started, the book was already in “boards,” meaning that the text block (the pages of the book) had been stitched together with the cover (see diagram). At this point, the text block had also been ploughed (or trimmed) and burnished. So out of necessity the binding process was started but not completed (Swan 82).

The next step was to slightly fan the pages of the text block and then securely clamp them together. The text block had to be held very tightly, otherwise the watercolor paint used to execute the fore-edge painting would bleed or run and mar the pages of the book. Watercolors also had a tendency to run along the page lines of the text block, so it was necessary for the artist to use as dry a brush as possible while applying the paint with perpendicular strokes (Swan 83). Only watercolors could be used to create a fore-edge painting, as they would be absorbed by the paper and not cause the pages of a book to stick together, as would happen if oil paints were applied. Another advantage of using watercolors is that they can handle being fanned repeatedly, while oil paints would crack and crumble.

The fore-edge painting was allowed to dry completely before the gilt (gold leaf) was applied to the edges of the text block. The gilding process had to be completed carefully to prevent the painting from running. Once the paint ingwas completely dry, it was released from the clamp or vise and the text block was squared up again. Then the text block was clamped very securely once again to avoid marring the painting during the multi-step gilding process. At this point, the fore-edge of the text block may have been scraped and burnished again; then sizing (diluted egg-white solution or gluten from boiled parchment or vellum) was applied with a fine brush or sponge to allow the gold leaf to adhere; next, the gold leaf was cut to size and applied with a brush; finally, it was burnished again when everything was completely dry (Hughes 602). If the gilt was not properly applied, the painting would show through even when the book is closed. In some instances, the fore-edge of the books were marbled. This was a less expensive way to treat the edges than gilding (Swan 87).


To whom was fore-edge painting first attributed? This is a difficult question to answer. The Edwards family of Halifax, England, had the greatest impact on the development of fore-edge paintings, but they did not invent the technique. William Edwards (1723-1808) was practicing the art of fore-edge painting as early as 1775; however, there are examples of paintings dating to 1651 by London bookbinders Stephenand Thomas Lewis. Unfortunately, little is known about the Lewis brothers other than they were the sons of a London stationer and worked in the city at least until 1664 (Weber 52-53). Other early examples came from the bookshop of Samuel Mearne, stationer and bookseller to King Charles II of England (Swan 22). Mearne held the office from 1660 until his death in 1683,and his bookshop has been attributed with producing many elegant bindings that are highly sought after by collectors. After Mearne’s death, the art of fore-edge painting was practiced infrequently until William Edwards took an interest in it(Swan 27).

The Edwards Family of Halifax

William was the patriarch of the Edwards family. He and his five sons were successful binders as well as booksellers and publishers. They had three specialties, examples of which are still highly popular with today’s rare book collectors. William Edwards is believed to have developed, or at least was a master, of the Etruscan style of decorating books bound in leather made from the hide of a calf. This decorative technique used acid to stain classical ornaments (e.g. Greek vases or palmettes) on the bindings. A second family specialty (patented by James Edwards in 1785) was a process for making vellum transparent, which allowed an artist to paint or draw a design on the underside of the skin (Jackson 5). After the vellum binding was completed, the image was safely protected from everyday wear. Their third specialty was fore-edge painting, a technique that was revived by William and perfected by Thomas.

William Edwards worked in Halifax for thirty years. In 1783, he bought up the libraries of three or four local collectors. Realizing that he could not profitably sell this recently acquired inventory in Halifax, he opened a new bookshop for his sons James and John in London (Pall Mall) in 1784. Their Richard opened another shop in Bond Street in 1792. (A few years after their Pall Mall bookshop opened, John died in France. It is rumored that he was guillotined, but this is uncertain. However, he would not have been the first man to have been executed during the French Revolution for being an educated man, and therefore an aristocrat (Weber 28-29).) The Edwards family effectuated all three of their specialties in their Halifax and London bookshops. Today’s collectors tend to attribute any binding of the period that imitates any of the three specialties to the Edwards family (Carter 87).

James Edwards became a celebrity of sorts when he outbid King George III for a Book of Hours (known as the Bedford Missal) at an auction in London in 1786. Queen Charlotte was scandalized when the king’s librarian informed them that the book might go for as much as 200 guineas. To keep his wife happy, the king told his librarian, George Nichol, not to bid higher than 200 guineas. James won the book for 203 guineas (Weber 4).

When William Edwards died in 1808, his son Thomas inherited his Halifax shop and maintained the business there until 1826. It is not entirely clear why Thomas focused on fore-edge paintings, but he was the biggest proponent of this technique in the Edwards family. When Thomas died in 1834, it marked the end of a thirty-year period (1774-1834) in the era of fore-edge paintings.

Fore-Edge Styles Change

The earliest hidden fore-edge paintings were floral designs, fleur de lys, and scrolls. Biblical scenes were also popular. Then in 1768 a forty-four-year-old parson named William Gilpin published An Essay Upon Prints: Containing Remarks Upon the Principles of Picturesque Beauty, the Different Kinds of Prints, and the Characters of the Most Noted Masters; Illustrated by Criticisms Upon Particular Pieces; to which are Added, Some Cautions that may be Useful in Collecting Prints.

Gilpin was already well known for an earlier book, A Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham, at Stow, in which he criticized the highly structured landscaping then in vogue and expounded on the virtues of natural scenery. Both works were tremendously popular and were the first of their kind to examine landscaping and natural beauty from an artistic point of view. In his works, Gilpin coined the term “picturesque,” defined it as something that was capable of being pleasingly illustrated in painting. Gilpin’s works were so influential that many other books were published on similar topics. Apparently, William Edwards was also influenced by this new trend in popular literature. In 1769 his shop began producing many copies of Gilpin’s works, and other works on similar topics, with “picturesque” fore-edge paintings (Weber 70). As Gilpin and others published new books, new fore-edge paintings were crafted to illustrate scenes from the books, giving birth to a tradition in fore-edge painting. Even after Gilpin died in 1804, he and his writings largely forgotten, picturesque scenes of one kind or another remained the predominant style of fore-edge painting.

William Edwards seemed to understand what his customers wanted, but he also painted what he was interested in (Weber 70). His early examples of fore-edge painting, when he was learning the technique, included floral designs. But scenes from the Bible were also favorite subjects. Early examples of fore-edge paintings by William Edwards and others tended to be fairly monochromatic, but as the picturesque became popular the fore-edge paintings became more vivid.

It was apparently common for booksellers to have folios of samples from which their artist or artists worked (Swan 35). Therefore, a fore-edge design was frequently copied from another work and the same design might appear on several different books.

The “Last Supper” may have been painted on various editions of the Bible. Also, scenes from famous works of art were chosen that seemed appropriate to a book and that the booksellers thought would be popular with their customers. Fore-edge paintings of the birthplace of the author of the book started appearing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Weber 85).

Thomas Edwards (1762-1834), the youngest of William’s sons, is the best-known member of the Edwards family for promoting the fore-edge painting (Swan 31).

He seemed to have a particularly good sense for what his customers wanted. He responded to the public’s interests in poetry, history, sports (hunting scenes were very popular), and novels by producing editions of popular books with appropriate fore-edge paintings. He would also do the same for books such as Greek classics. By the time Thomas died, the art of fore-edge painting had been brought to new artistic levels.

The influence of the Edwards family was widely felt, especially among booksellers in London. Faulders, another publisher and printer, was a contemporary of Edwards and imitated his style, as did the binders in Taylor and Hessey’s shop (Weber 106). Artists who created fore-edge paintings for the Halifax family or any other bindery are almost completely unknown. It is believed that in most cases the binder and painter were not the same person. Thomas Gosden (1780-1840) is apparently an exception to this rule. The artists tended not to sign their works, but there are a few records indicating that both men and women practiced fore-edge painting. One man who did occasionally sign his work was Bartholomew Frye. It is also known that he worked for William and Thomas Edwards (Weber 114-115).

Double Fore-Edge Paintings

Double fore-edge painting is one of the rarer styles of the genre. As the name suggests, if you fan the text block of a book one way you can view one scene; if the text block is fanned in the opposite direction, you see another scene. This technique apparently dates back to the mid-eighteenth century—at least that is when a date can be positively assigned to one. Additionally, the scenes on the oldest existing double fore-edge paintings have landscape and picturesque scenes, not the floral designs that would date them to an earlier period. The most productive time for double fore-edge painting was between 1785 and 1835. The difficulty in creating a double fore-edge is the most likely reason that there are so few of them. Perhaps two or three percent of existing volumes with fore-edge paintings are doubles (Weber 99).

Two-Way Paintings

Two-way paintings are also very unusual examples of fore-edge craftsmanship. The edges of the book were decorated when the pages were opened in the middle. In order to see each image clearly, the text block needs to be fanned up and then down, or to the right and then the left, depending on the orientation of the painting.

The American Influence

The period Carl J. Weber identified as the “American Blight” occurred during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It refers to a period in the history of foreedge painting when the scenes painted had nothing to do with the content of thebook (Weber 125). For example, a book of poetry by Sir Walter Scott might have a scene of Fort Sumter on its fore-edge. This was done purely to sell books to American tourists. Apparently Americans preferred buying their books abroad; there are many more examples of fore-edge paintings depicting American scenes on books by English authors or printers than anything else. This period also saw the quality of the paintings go down while prices went up. It is also worth noting that books chosen for decoration tended to be unimportant volumes. British booksellers had found a successful and profitable means of unloading their overstocked and slow-moving titles.


There were a number of amateurs who took an active interest in fore-edge painting. For example, John Beer was an amateur fore-edge painter in the late nineteenth century. He apparently painted hundreds of volumes (Swan 39). One of the most interesting aspects of an amateur’s work is that it is much more likely to be original. These artists were doing it for their own amusement, without thought of selling their works. Another feature of amateur fore-edge paintings is that the edges are typically not gilt, although there are some amateurs that purchased older books with the gilt already applied and then added their fore-edge.

Fore-Edge Painting Continues

Although fore-edge paintings are not as popular as they once were, there are many examples of edge decoration from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One of the more talented artists during the early part of the twentieth century was C.B. Currie, who decorated more than 131 edges (Swan 45). She signed and numbered her work and preferred to work with books that were fifty to 100 years old.

Another interesting chapter in this history took place in China. There are many Chinese fore-edge paintings that date from 1936 to 1942. The first example was apparently brought over by an American who taught in Beijing. The idea caught on and artists began applying edge decoration to modern European books. They quickly turned to older books as well as volumes published in China and Japan. Biblical scenes were predominant, no matter what the subject of the book. Landscapes were also common; these were often painted vertically rather than horizontally. The books tended not to be gilt-edged.

Although many beautiful examples made their way to America, World War II put an end to books from China being exported to the United States (Weber 161).

Today, there are still artists who know the techniques and are highly regarded in the field of rare books. Martin Frost is probably the best-known and most talented contemporary artist practicing this book-decoration technique. He is also the most prolific, having completed over 3,000 fore-edge paintings.

A final unusual feature worth noting is that it is often difficult to determine if a fore-edge painting is actually contemporary with the binding of the book. Some clues to look for include: gilt edging that appears too bright or new for an old volume (this is an indication that the painting was recently added and new gilt applied); colors that appear too bright or intense; the use of hues that were not available when the painting was executed; or an uneven, or choppy appearance. Fore-edge paintings that are contemporary with the bindings tend to be the most sought after by collectors. However, when well-executed, old books with new paintings are also highly desirable and a joy to behold—assuming the buyer is aware of what he is purchasing.


Fore-edge paintings followed the trends of the times. As the “picturesque” theme became popular, it was emulated in fore-edge paintings, turning away from symmetrical designs. Scrolls, floral designs, and biblical scenes were replaced by William Gilpin’s inspirations.

In general, the artists executing fore-edge paintings were copying other works. Painting popular works or imitating styles helped sell books. In fact, many books may have sold for the painting rather than the content. We also know that paintings were not always contemporary with the book; for example, Thomas Edwards may have added scenes to promote the sale of certain books after he had them in his shop for a few years.

Typically, very little is known about the painters. A painting may be signed or we may know that an artist worked for a particular binder but usually little beyond that.

Books by English poets were the most popular to apply painting to, especially works by Sir Walter Scott, William Cowper, and John Milton. Bibles, Greek and Latin classics, books dealing with travel, and sports were also popular. Foreedge painting reached its most productive time during the early nineteenth century, from 1800 to1825, which coincides with the peak of Thomas Edwards’ career, forever linking the popularity of fore-edge painting to the Edwards family of Halifax.


Works Cited

Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995).

Jackson, Joseph. Fore-edge Paintings Mystify as Well as Beautify. (Philadelphia: Campion’s, 1928).

Hughes, G. Bernard. “English Fore-Edge Paintings.” Country Life 122.3167 (1957): 602-603.

Swan, Nancy C. Modern Fore-Edge Painting. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1956.

Weber, Carl J. Fore-Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art inBook Decoration. (Irvington-On-    Hudson: Harvey House, Inc., 1966).