A fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book. There are two basic forms, including paintings on edges that have been fanned and edges that are closed; thus with the first instance a book edge must be fanned to see the painting and in the second the painting is on the closed edge itself and thus should not be fanned. A fanned painting is one that is not visible when the book is closed.
In order to view the painting, the leaves of the book must be fanned, exposing the edges of the pages and thereby the painting. Another basic difference is that a painting on the closed edge is painted directly on the surface of the book edge (the fore-edge being the opposite of the spine side). For the fanned painting the watercolor is applied to the top or bottom margin (recto or verso) of the page/leaf and not to the actual "fore"-edge itself.
A single fore-edge painting includes a painting on only one side of the book page edges. Generally, gilt or marbling is applied by the bookbinder after the painting has dried, so as to make the painting completely invisible when the book is closed.
A double fore-edge painting has paintings on both sides of the page margin so that one painting is visible when the leaves are fanned one way, and the other is visible when the leaves are fanned the other way.
A triple fore-edge painting has, in addition to paintings on the edges, a third painting applied directly to the edges (in lieu of gilt or marbling). Edge paintings that are continuous scenes wrapped around more than one edge are called panoramic fore-edge painting. These are sometimes called a 'triple edge painting'.
A split double painting has two different illustrations, one on either side of the center of the book. When the book is laid open in the center, one illustration is seen on the edges of the first half of the book, and another illustration is on the edge of the second half of the book.
There are even examples of rare variations that require the pages of the book to be pinched or tented in a certain way to see the image.
The earliest fore-edge paintings date possibly as far back as the 10th century; these earliest paintings were symbolic designs. Early English fore-edge paintings, believed to date to the 14th century, presented heraldic designs in gold and other colors. The first known example of a disappearing fore-edge painting (where the painting is not visible when the book is closed) dates from 1649. The earliest signed and dated fore-edge painting dates to 1653: a family coat of arms painted on a 1651 Bible.
There is an interesting legend of how hidden fore-edge painting on books supposedly first began: Charles II of England had a lady friend, a duchess, who often borrowed his books, sometimes forgetting to return them. As the story goes, the king commissioned the court painter, Sir Peter Lely, and the court bookbinder, Samuel Mearne, to devise a secret method in which his books could be identified. Between the two they worked out a unique plan. Some weeks later, when the king was visiting the duchess he spotted a familiar looking book on a shelf. Taking it down he said, "I'll just take my book along with me." "But sire," the lady protested, "that book is mine." "Oh?" The king raised his brows. Then, with a sly smile, he fanned out the book and revealed what had been painted on the inner edges--the royal coat of arms. The gilding on the outer edges had completely hidden the identification. Acknowledging that Charles had outwitted her, the duchess sank in a deep curtsy before her king.[better source needed]
Around 1750, the subject matter of fore-edge paintings changed from simply decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes, portraits and religious scenes, usually painted in full color. Modern fore-edge painted scenes have a lot more variation as they can depict numerous subjects not found on earlier specimens. These include scenes that are erotic, or they might involve scenes from novels (like Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes or Dickens, etc.). In many cases, the chosen scene will depict a subject related to the book, but in other cases it did not. In one instance, the same New Brunswick landscape was applied to both a Bible and to a collection of poetry and plays. The choice of scenes is made by either the artist, bookseller or owner, thus the variety is wide.
The technique was popularized in the 18th century by John Brindley (1732 - 1756), publisher and bookbinder to the prince of Wales. and Edwards of Halifax, a distinguished family of bookbinders and booksellers.
The majority of extant examples of fore-edge painting date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries on reproductions of books originally published in the early 19th century.
Artists currently expert in the fore-edge artform include UK-based artists, Martin Frost and Clare Brooksbank. The reference book of L. Jeff Weber lists many artists' and binders' names associated with this art form, including those working presently (until 2010).
No comprehensive census of fore-edge paintings in the United States has yet been completed.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Lord Byron, 1812-1818)
The New Casket (1850) by Joseph Martin Kronheim
Sacred Poetry (Jeremy Belknap, 1744)
Rogers' Poems (Samuel Rogers, 1834)
Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (Joseph Strutt, 1801)