16 Fore-Edge Paintings You'll Love, Even If You Don't Like Books
Fore-edge paintings are a fascinating subset of the literary and artistic worlds. But you may find yourself wondering: what are fore-edge paintings? In the late 18th century, many religious texts began to be published with ornate and artistic drawings or covers. Along with this other book art, publishers would occasionally – and painstakingly – color the page edges with ink or paint in order to create a secret picture. Sometimes this painting could not be seen unless the edges of the pages were splayed out slightly, so that many wouldn't even know it was there. While you'll find this throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and even today, it first rose to popularity in the late 1700s in England.
While some examples of these paintings are simple, involving flowers, text, or perhaps the shape of an animal, many others are intensely ornate. You might find the author's picture, a scene from the book, or a landscape from where the author or character grew up. Either way, these fore-edge painting books are very sought after, even if most of the titles have faded from memory.
Curious to discover more about this hidden world? Luckily for you, this list contains photos of some beautiful fore-edge paintings that are sure to knock your socks off – even if you've never heard of the book. Read on to marvel at some incredible images, and vote up the coolest of them all.
- Photo: Boston Public Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
This novel was first written by Jared Sparks in 1828, which is when this particular copy was printed. It was printed by Henry Coburn in London, and contains different correspondences of John Ledyard throughout his professional and personal life, creating a sort of biography for him. Not only is the fore-edge painting shown here a lovely, simple, and bold piece of art, it also may be a nod to someone Ledyard looked up to. This painting is likely an homage to the travels of Captain Cook, who John Ledyard sailed with while he was in the British Navy.
- 244 VOTESPhoto: Boston Public Library Follow / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Also called Marmion; a Tale of Flodden Field, this book was written by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist. This particular copy was published in Edinburgh by George Ramsay in 1811, which was still during the author's lifetime. Many fore-edge paintings involve ocean scenes or boats, but this one depicts a very particular place. Viewers see the Holy Island Castle alongside Lindesfarne Abbey, which is a monastery founded in the seventh century. This historic setting is along the coast of Northumberland, where the seas can be particularly troublesome.
- 361 VOTESPhoto: DimitraCharalampidou / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0
One of the many religious texts on this list, this book of the new versions of the Psalms of David was published in 1844 by the University Press at Oxford. The ornateness of this book doesn't just end with the detail of the painting. The artist, Martin Frost, put this book in gold-tooled purple morocco binding, so that the pages looked golden unless they were splayed. Then, once they were fanned, you could catch a glimpse of a colored, finely-crafted painting of the Madonna with Jesus, surrounded by cherubs and nobles. If you look closely, you can even see the detail of individual leaves in the garlands that hang over Mary and Jesus' heads.
- 457 VOTESPhoto: Flickr upload bot / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Not all books that had fore-edge paintings were works of literature. In the case of this painting, the art was done on the pages of a manuscripts and receipt book from the early nineteenth century. While historians don't know the publisher or date, they do know that the painting depicts an image of the Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, in detail so fine that you can see the stained glass windows. It appears as though the person who had this book used it somewhat, as it contains many of their notes and receipts, but the rest is blank. It just goes to show that this practice was so popular that it extended beyond novels, poetry, and religious texts.
- 546 VOTESPhoto: Boston Public Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
On occasion, fore-edge paintings contained subjects that were a little racy or even pornographic. In this case, one might not exactly call the scene pornographic, but the nudity might have been a little shocking in 1817 when the book was printed. In the painting, you can see Diana, Greek goddess of the hunt, with a handmaiden, lying naked beside a pond. The handmaiden is also giving her quite a suggestive look, especially considering her position. This Greek to French dictionary was printed by Jos. Planche, but the exact location is unknown. The painting itself is done in watercolor, and still shows exquisite detail even today.
- 635 VOTES
Not all fore-edge paintings depict an original work of art or scene from the book. This painting from the Holy Bible is one such example. Printed in 1803 in Edinburgh, this copy of the Bible was published by Sir D.H. Blair and J. Bruce. The image pictured here may be familiar to you, seeing as it's a seriously famous one even today. The Last Supper, as painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, shows Jesus surrounded by his disciples, sharing a final meal before his betrayal and crucifixion. Although Da Vinci obviously didn't paint this version, it still is a fitting image to put on the side of a copy of the Bible.