Modern book design focuses on typography, cover art, and internal flourishes, but several hundred years ago book designers also added art to the sides of pages. This type of art is called fore-edge painting, and it refers to a painted design on the edges of book pages. When looking at the edge of a single page, it is impossible to tell what the image is supposed to be, but when all of the pages are viewed together, a coherent image.
Fore-edge paintings have a long history. In fact, they precede the invention of the printing press by several hundred years. The first known fore-edge paintings are from the 10th century. During these early years, the images were primarily symbolic or Heraldic designs that had been hand painted onto the book.
By the 18th century, however, the focus of fore-edge paintings changed. The images began to depict numerous themes including landscapes, religious symbols, erotic scenes. Though the paintings occasionally reflected a book’s contents, they more often were the result of an artist or publisher’s aesthetic tendencies. English booksellers and publishers in particular popularized fore-edge paintings, and today the majority of still existing books with fore-edge painting can be found in the UK.
If you are interested in seeing more examples of fore-edge painting, there are several wonderful library collections that you can explore. In particular, Boston Public Library has an excellent gallery of fore-edge painting. Viewing it is a great way to find inspiration and to brighten up your day. Syracuse University also has a solid write-up about its collection of fore-edge paintings. If you are looking for a more in depth analysis of this art, the article is a good place to start.
When I first worked in libraries, I never knew that these images had a specific name or historical arc. I only knew that discovering them was like finding a jewel in the book stacks. It has been fascinating to learn more about them. If you have had an encounters with fore-edge paintings or other types of art on books, let me know! I’m interested in hearing more about them.
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Torquato Tasso, translated by John Hoole, Jerusalem Delivered, Vol. 1, 1797.
Jeremy Belknap, Sacred Poetry, 1744.
John Thelwall, A Letter to Henry Cline, London: Richard Taylor, 1810.