ABC for Book Collectors: Fore-Edge Painting

Fore-edge painting found on "Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century" published in 1801

Fore-edge painting found on “Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century” published in 1801

For anyone who has an interest in books, bookbinding, and book collecting, John Carter’s ABC For Book Collectors is an invaluable resource. It has long been established as the most informative reference book on the subject. With over 490 alphabetical entries, ABC for Book Collectors is a compilation of definitions and analysis of the technical terms used in book collecting and bibliography.

"The fortunes of Nigel" by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1871

“The fortunes of Nigel” by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1871

The Walter Havighurst Special Collections is home to many examples of the terms found in ABC for Book Collectors. One such term that is of particular interest to me is fore-edge painting. According to Carter, fore-edge painting can refer to any decoration found on the fore-edge of a book. Carter goes on to say “The term is most commonly used, however, for an English technique quite widely practiced in the second half of the 17th century in London and Edinburgh, and popularized in the 18th by John Brindley and (in particular) Edwards of Halifax, whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and then held fast, is decorated with painted views or conversation pieces. The edges are then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remains concealed (and protected) while the book is closed: fan out the edges and it reappears.”

I find fore-edge paintings to be particularly fascinating. The books that contain these hidden works of art appear quite normal at first glance, it’s only upon closer inspection that these tiny masterpieces are revealed. The following are examples of fore-edge paintings found in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections.


Œuvres complètes de P. J. de Béranger, published in 1835

This example, a Bible from 1855, shows how the fore-edge looks when the book is closed. As you can see, the fore-edge painting is not visible at all until you fan the book open.


“The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments”, 1855

Here is another inconspicuous looking book, Leonidas: A Poem that reveals a beautiful painting when held just right.


“Leonidas : A Poem” v. 1, published in 1804


V.1 of “Leonidas” with the fore-edge painting visible


The fore-edge painting found on v.2 of “Leonidas”

The Poetical Works and Essays by Oliver Goldsmith, closed with the fore-edge painting hidden from view, and then open, to reveal the painting.


“Poetical Works and Essays” by Oliver Goldsmith, published in 1820

"Poetical Works and Essays" with the fore-edge painting visible

“The Poetical Works and Essays” by Oliver Goldsmith, published in 1820

Ashley Jones
Preservation Librarian



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