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The Fascinating Art of Fore-Edge Painting

Here at Décor Books, you know all too well about our love for… Well, books! And today we’re sharing that love with you, by taking a look at the fascinating art of fore-edge painting.

What is the ‘fore-edge’?

Quite simply, the ‘fore-edge’ is the part of a book that faces inwards to the bookshelf – it’s the opposite to the spine! And, as you can imagine, fore-edge painting is when deftly handed artists paint a scene onto the fore edge of a book! This can either be done with the edge solid, so that the finished painting is visible when the book is closed. Or, more commonly, painted when the edge is fanned out… Meaning the mysterious (and miniature) painting is completely hidden from view when the book is closed!

This wonderfully hidden aspect of fore-edge painting is what makes the practice so magical. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’d never know! Many old books contain fantastic – and oh-so-secret – fore-edge paintings that most of us would miss completely. But simply fan out the pages, and ta-da! The book’s hidden secret is revealed.

How is it done?

To create a fore-edge painting is fiddly business – artists must be skilled, with a steady hand! The pages of the book are first fanned out, then held in a vice, after which the artist then paints onto the resulting slope with watercolours.

If this was all, the paint would still be visible – so the edge is often also gilded or marbled, so that the painting is concealed and the closed book shows no trace whatsoever… As if by magic!

And it doesn’t stop there. Artists are able to create double, or even triple edged paintings by fanning the pages in a different way (by reversing the book) or painting on the closed edge instead of gilding or marbling (by closing the book!).

When did fore-edge painting become popular?

As with all book-related hobbies… This particular trend dates back all the way to the 10th century! Although these earliest designs were mainly of ancient symbols, rather than the exciting, detailed scenes that grew popular in the years to come.

It’s thought that fore-edge painting found its way to Great Britain around the 14th century. It’s said that Henry VIII was a fan, favouring designs by artist Thomas Berthelet. Berthelet would treat the fore-edge as a solid panel, on which he would paint a heraldic (similar to a coat of arms) or other motif in gold and various strong colours.

Are there many famous fore-edge painters?

Some of the most famous historical examples of fore-edge painting came from William Edwards of Halifax, who were bookbinders and booksellers around 1750. William himself made the art of painting landscapes on fore-edges popular, in place of the floral scrolls and heraldic bearings which had become fairly common.

He first used monochrome (brown or grey – the equivalent to today’s ‘Mono’ or ‘Sepia’ Instagram filter!) and later, the full range of colours. William was also a pioneer in the portraits he also often included, as well as lush, green countrysides, stark industrial buildings, and colourful sports. It then (finally!) became popular to depict scenes based on the content of the book being decorated. The types of books commonly treated in this manner were Bibles and prayer books, the classics, travel books, and poetry.

Although the ancient art of fore-edge painting dates back centuries, there is clear evidence indicating that the majority of such paintings are the work of the last 200 years, mainly on books dating from the early 19th century. Their recent popularity was as a result of demand from book collectors – because there were insufficient numbers of genuine antique copies of many titles, therefore books were painted to guarantee their authenticity.

What about today?

Today, the fabulous art lives on through talented artists such as Martin Frost. Since 1970, Martin Frost has produced well over 3300 fore-edge and miniature paintings, and even offers a quality Presentation Bookbinding service for those who want their treasured books to look as superb as they deserve.

You can check out Martin’s unique talent for fore-edge painting on his website. Martin’s stunning images have also featured throughout this posts, and if you like what you see, there is an extensive gallery available on his page – just click here to view.  

Fancy it? You know we love a good home library… And well, if each book in that library held up to three wonderfully painted fore-edge secrets? We’d be living the library dream!

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Author Bio

Canada Berryman

Other posts by , my email address candyberrymn@hotmail.co.uk.