Bookmarks: The Mysterious Art of Fore-edge Painting

artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.

The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.

Diana with a Hand Maiden, Book Title: Dictionnaire Grec-Français : compose sur l’ouvrage intitule Thesaurus linguae graecae de Henri Étienne / pas Jos. Planche. Paris : Le Nornant, 1817. Collection of the Boston Public Library, Rare Books Department.

Perhaps one of the least recognizable parts of a book, the fore-edge has the ability to overshadow any contents that a book may possess. Located directly across from the spine of the book, the fore-edge is the area where all of the page ends meet. While this area is seemingly benign, it also has the ability to astound.

Fore-edge painting is a largely unknown activity that was quite popular during the late 18th and 19th centuries in England. Completed using a dry watercolor technique, the fanned edges of book pages are delicately adorned with illustrations that vary widely in subject matter. When closed, the gilt (gold) pages of the book slide together, thereby causing the painting to seemingly disappear.

Historically, two painters are credited with the development and popularization of fore-edge painting. Cesare Vecellio, a 16th-century Venetian artist and a relative of Titian, is recognized as the “inventor” of fore-edge painting. Unlike later paintings, Vecellio’s works were executed while the books were closed, which made his imagery visible at all times. In the 17th century, Samuel Mearne, an Englishman, produced fore-edge paintings that had the ability to “disappear,” a technique which was thereafter widely replicated.

These developments were later expanded upon by other artists. In some cases, the top and bottom edges of books were decorated. In the 20th century, it was also discovered that double fore-edge could be completed; double fore-edge paintings feature two paintings that are completed in two directions – one with the pages fanned in the traditional layout and the second with the pages fanned in the opposite direction. This development led to the introduction of other advanced variations, including the split-double (which offers four paintings along the fore-edge) and the all-edge (which uses all three edges of the text block) and can provide enough space for twelve separate possible paintings.

As these books were often special commissions by wealthy families, very few historic examples of fore-edge paintings are recognizable. In an effort to educate the public about these texts, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Department has recently digitized its collection of fore-edge paintings. If you are interested in the subject, their site provides over 200 images of paintings as well as additional scholarly resources on the subject. I highly recommend exploring it. 

Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.