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Archives and Special Collections: Fore-edge Paintings

An introduction to the materials available in Clark University's Archives and Special Collections.

Fore-Edge Paintings


A fore-edge painting decorates the outside edge of the pages of a book.  There are two forms of fore-edge paintings: directly on the fore-edge, and hidden.  The first fore-edge paintings, as early as the tenth century, were painted directly on the front edge of the book.  At this time, books were displayed page-side out, with the spines facing into the shelf.  Later fore-edge paintings (c. 1650s) were hidden, so that you can only see the image when the pages are fanned.  By 1750, fore-edge paintings evolved from small decorative images to detailed scenes.

From the Collection: A Double Fore-Edge Painting

John Elmes, Sir Christopher Wren and His Times. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1852).

These are images of an unusual double fore-edge painting.  Here, the artist has created an image that is visible on one side and a different image visible on the other side, with gilding visible when the book is closed.

Closed book, displaying the gilded front:

The closed book, displaying the gilded gold fore-edge

The first fore-edge painting: A view of the Thames with St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London in the distance.

Display of a fore-edge painting of boats in the water

The second fore-edge painting, with a closer view of St. Paul's Cathedral.  Sir Christopher Wren was the architect of the Cathedral, so this illustration matches the subject matter of the book.

Painted fore-edge of the book, depicting the Tower of London

Clark's Collection

Clark has a collection of 14 books with fore-edge paintings, donated and collected to the library.  The books range in date from 1748-1860, with paintings done at the time of publishing and as recently as 2010. We have three books with double fore-edge paintings, and one split book (where half the pages show one image and half show another when fanned in the opposite direction).

Books Used to be Stored Spine-In

Book with spine facing away, fore-edge facing the camera. The title, mostly illegible, is written on the pages.

Books were stored spine-in, and were even chained to the shelf at times.  Prior to the Printing Press, books were an extremely valuable luxury, so one could not risk the book being stolen.  To identify the books, they were labelled or decorated on the fore-edge, as is this copy of Homiliae in Evangelia by Pope Gregory I.

Other Fore-Edge Painting Collections