As we have seen time and time again, one can learn a great deal by examining the various marks in books. However, this study of rare book provenance often focuses on the primitive, mundane, or even ugly facets of book ownership. Libraries and personal collectors do not generally stamp or inscribe their books to beautify them or to add value, but to mark the items as their property. And many people, having been born into a centuries-old print culture, see handwritten annotations and marginalia as imperfect human elements marring the otherwise mechanical orderliness of a printed text.
I do not share this worldview, but of course I am biased by my interest in the potential value of these additions as provenance evidence. However, there are some marks in books to which I suspect even the most ardent biblio-purist would not object — marks interesting not only for their historical value, but also for their artistic merit.
Throughout the long and varied history of the book, writers, binders, printers and publishers have embellished the products of their craft in a myriad of ways. Early Medieval manuscripts were often meticulously illustrated, and bookmakers have been tooling, stamping, or painting designs onto book covers for centuries. Even in the modern age of machine printing and mass production, there is a great demand for artisan books bound, decorated or illustrated by hand.
One of the most interesting and uncommon forms of book art, the form I will be exploring below, is the practice of fore-edge painting. These rare instances of book adornment are the result of painting a design or a scene on the front edge of a book’s text block (the edge opposite the spine).
Fore-edge painting remains relatively obscure, despite a recent revival in the practice, largely because the artwork is usually visible only when the book’s pages are fanned out. In addition, most of these paintings (especially those from the 18th century onward) are hidden by gilded page edges. Since fore-edge paintings typically remain invisible until the text block of the book is examined closely, and since each painting takes so much care and skill to produce, most people are unaware of this artistic tradition — even many bibliophiles and book dealers have never come across examples of these secret paintings.
Prior to the development of this art form, titles, shelf codes, or other identifying marks were often inked onto the fore-edges of books, so that the volumes could be easily identified when they were stacked on top of one another. It is difficult to determine exactly when or where the practice of painting these edges began, although most scholars agree that the simplest form of “flat” fore-edge illustration likely became popular in late-15th or early-16th century Italy.
Regardless of the precise date the practice was invented, by the mid-17th century fore-edge painting had arrived in England, where bookmakers developed the technique of applying paint to fanned pages, so that the artwork would be hidden when the book was closed. The practice continued to enjoy moderate popularity among England’s elite bookmakers and their patrons for a number of years, but by the end of the 17th century interest in fore-edge painting had waned, and few new works were created until the art’s revival nearly one hundred years later.
The re-emergence of fore-edge painting as a popular art form in the late 18th century was largely due to the efforts of one English bookbinding and publishing company, Edwards of Halifax. Although there were other fore-edge painters operating throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a surprising number of these artists did not sign their work, and it remains difficult to identify the creators of many paintings from this era. Due to the sheer number of works that are traceable back to the Edwards firm, however, a great many unsigned pieces of fore-edge painting end up being attributed to them as well.
After the revival of fore-edge painting by Edwards of Halifax, the trade remained relatively popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. A number of artists and bookbinders made their names creating beautiful fore-edge paintings, most often in the English style of “hidden” painting on fanned pages. As the art form grew in popularity it evolved into more complex forms, and by the early 20th century paintings were even being done on both sides of the fore-edge (so that one painting would be visible if you fanned the pages one direction, and another if you fanned them the other way), on all three edges of the book (head, tail, and for-edge), or both. Even in these elaborate cases the book’s edges were usually gilded, hiding all artwork from casual inspection.
The range of subject matter for these paintings also grew as the art form evolved. Early fore-edge paintings were of mostly pastoral scenes, but by the 20th century artists were producing paintings for a much wider audience, and had to adapt to the current Zeitgeist and the ever-changing demands of collectors. Vignettes included depictions of historical or mythical events, sports scenes, cityscapes, and more. Of course, some fore-edge paintings were added by collectors themselves, and the themes of many paintings often matched the subject matter of the host books.
The renaissance of fore-edge painting in the 18th century by Edwards of Halifax pales in comparison to the latest, 20th century revival of the art. Most modern artists, however, rather than adding their art to contemporary works, instead paint on the fore-edges of old books — often from the 18th or 19th century. This can make it difficult to date a fore-edge painting through a cursory visual examination alone, and many unsigned and undated paintings can fool even a trained eye. Worse still, this ambiguity is often deliberate, perpetrated with the intent to defraud collectors.
Thankfully the reputable modern artists seem to outnumber the fraudulent, and it is these known artists who are largely responsible for making the practice popular again in the 20th century. Chief among these, at least in the first half of the century, was the prolific fore-edge painter Miss C. B. Currie, who produced a series of signed and dated paintings for Sotheran’s of London. Martin Frost, another modern day fore-edge artist, produced a great deal of signed and dated work in the latter half of the 20th century and still creates fore-edge paintings today.
Even with the recent “second renaissance” of fore-edge painting, the art form remains relatively unknown and misunderstood. However, a number of institutions, such as the Boston Public Library, maintain large, beautiful collections of fore-edge painted books from every era, and several artisan bookbinders working today still produce their own fore-edge paintings.
With the help of some outspoken rare book dealers and special collections libraries, this centuries-old trade is finally, slowly working its way back into the public’s awareness. And I think nearly everyone — even those who would normally cringe at the sight of a marked-up book — can admire the products of this unique craft, tragically under-appreciated in the history of book arts.
For more information on the art of fore-edge painting, see the Boston Public Library’s articles on fore-edge painting and the website of modern fore-edge artist Martin Frost. Also be sure to check out these previously undocumented fore-edge paintings recently discovered by Special Collections & Archives staff at the University of Iowa! (original UI Special Collections Tumblr post here)
Does anyone out there recognize the artists of any of our fore-edge paintings? Has anyone had a chance to see a work like this in person? Leave a comment below!