Fore-Edge Paintings and You

When they weren’t learning how to garden with lobsters or questioning the best method to use when trimming their toenails underwater, the people of 18th century England were shelling out their shillings for the latest literary trend—fore-edge paintings. Often featuring landscapes, religious symbols, or portraits, fore-edge paintings are decorative designs that have been painted onto the edges of the pages of a book. The books usually come in two basic forms: closed and fanned. The former indicates that the painting is visible when the book is in a natural, closed state, while the latter means the reader has to physically shift the pages of the book to reveal the picture.

To paint a better picture of what these books looks like in action, Colleen Theisen, an outreach librarian who works in the Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa, uploaded a .gif that shows the fanning process of an 1837 book entitled Autumn.

A fore-edge painting being fanned.

A fore-edge painting being fanned.

The final fanned example of a fore-edge painting.

The final fanned example of a fore-edge painting.

But! Fret not! You don’t have to travel all the way to Iowa to get a glimpse of these belletristic beauties. IU’s very own Lilly Library has a collection of over 50 books with fore-edge paintings, and many of them are still in excellent condition.

The Canterbury Tales  by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Rokeby; A Poem by Walter Scott, Esq.

Rokeby; A Poem by Walter Scott, Esq.

For more information regarding the history of fore-edge paintings, be sure to stop by the Lilly Library to take a look at these helpful resources! And if you have any questions, or forget how to handle a book (please, don’t use it as a Kleenex), feel free to talk with a librarian!

Hidden Treasures : The History and Technique of Fore-edge Painting
ND2370 .B471 2012

Paintings Under Gold : Being an Illustrated Catalogue of Eighty Fore-edge Paintings
Z688.R3 J45

Fore-edge Painting
Z688.R3 J49

-Delainey Bowers

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