Antique Detective: Rediscovering Fore-Edge Book Paintings

By Anne Gilbert


   Have you ever heard of fore-edge book paintings or even seen an example? Probably not, unless you are a rare book collector or have inherited an example. However, these unique paintings, part of book history, date back as early as the 10th century. Just what are they? How are they hidden?
   Look at the edging of an 18th or 19th century book. Chances are the edges will be gilt. Then, fan the pages left to right and a painted scene will come into view. Then flip the pages right to left and a second picture may show up. You may have discovered a book with a rare, fore-edge painting worth from $500 to several thousand dollars.
   Edging decoration could be sprinkled color, marbled or gilded.
   The art has varied over the centuries. The earliest pictured symbolic designs and were made in Italy. An English bible dating 1653 has a fore-edge painting of a coat of arms. By the 1700s fore edge painting had become a water color art depicting landscapes, portraits and religious scenes.
   After the American Revolution, some rare examples depicted George Washington and American scenes. One example, in the Boston Public Library is a volume, c. 1808, titled “The Speeches of the Right Honorable William Pitt, volume 2” and pictures George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
   The techniques were popularized in 18th century England by John Brindley (1732-1756) publisher and book binder to the Prince of Wales and Edwards of Halifax.
   Since not many of the paintings were signed it is difficult to date them, except for the publication date of the book. To add to the confusion, fore-edge painting was often done after the book was printed. Joseph Fletcher, for instance, painted a copy of the “Last Supper” and signed it one hundred years after it was published in 1585.
   Wealthy book collector had a fore-edge clamp designed to display the “secret” fore-edge paintings on their books. When the pages were pulled back the painting was revealed.
   CLUES: There are discoveries waiting to be made. Check 19th century books that turn up in flea markets and book sales. Flip the pages, as directed. Who know if you’ve found a valuable fore-edge painting? The art is still being practiced. Check the internet for artists.
   PHOTO: (1) Fore-edged book painting “The Political Work Essays by Oliver Goldsmith. PHOTO CREDIT: Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University. PHOTO: (2) “The Speeches of The Right Honorable William Pitt, Volume 2. Depicting George Washington & Benjamin Franklin CREDIT: Boston Public Library. PHOTO (3) Fore-edged painting in book “Political Works and Essays” PHOTO CREDIT: Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University

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