In The Rare Book Room: Fore-edge paintings

Fore-edge paintings are exquisite, hand-made and highly detailed paintings on the edge of a book’s outer leaves, only visible when looked at from a certain angle. In this way, they have a trompe l’oeil effect that is entirely charming and surprising.

This short video shows you what happens when you fan the pages of a book that has been decorated in such a manner. This site has a brief history of fore-edge painting, and here is a snippet:

The Italian Renaissance is, as with many things, where it all really started (although medieval examples exist). Often quite simple, floral decorations, heraldic designs or motifs, these were generally painted directly onto the fore-edge rather than later ‘fanned’ edge, sometimes with a gold background. These were not uncommon in 15th and 16th century Italy. But the term is now largely used to refer to the British examples of this art. Disappearing pictures start to appear, as it were, on mid 17th century English bibles and common prayer books. By the latter part of the 17th century, very fine works were being produced.

And take a look here, on the site of someone who has rediscovered and recreates this historical art form. Mr. Frost’s site has particularly clear images of his designs, and good examples, links and short Quick-time movies illustrating how the fore-edge design process works.

The Bentley Rare Book gallery, at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University displays these interesting gems, amongst others. The University of Florida also maintains a collection.


From Oliver Goldsmith's "The vicar of Wakfield: A Tale"; London.

The poetical works of Thomas Moore

Images from other sources are less literary, and more openly erotic, yet charming. This painting is extremely mild, compared to other, more suggestive examples:


Art Nouveau period fore-edge painting

Children’s books are represented, as are mysteries, and fairy-tales:


Alice through the looking glass

Fairytale imagery of mermaids

Fore-edge painting relies on the science and art of illusion for its affect. Think about the hours and hours of work it takes to create these little gems, so entirely visible once you know they’re there, yet hidden from the eye unless, and until, you know what to look for:

Delight in encountering, unawares, the fore-edge painting

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