Art on the (fore) Edge

NEW BRIDGE AND BROOMIELAW, GLASGOW, SHOWING CITY AND BOATS. Watercolor on paper. On the fore-edge of “Q. Horatii Flacci Opera,” 1796, bound in green morocco, gilt edges, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 11.116.1

Stark Museum of Art reveals hidden treasures in rare books

The special exhibition “Tales and Travels” at the Stark Museum of Art takes visitors on a journey through time and space. At the center of the show are rare books presented in the context of paintings, prints, letters and other documents which illustrate real and imaginary stories of discovery and adventure. The exhibition attests to H.J. Lutcher Stark’s passion for books which was as strong as his passion for art. In the past, museum visitors had an opportunity to marvel at such extraordinary collection items as John James Audubon’s double-elephant edition of “Birds of America” and beautifully illuminated medieval books of hours. Now for the first time the museum showcases first editions of famous books, such as “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” by Charles Darwin, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe and “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.

HAYMARKET AND THE UNITED SERVICES MILITARY CLUB WITH THE HAYMARKET THEATER IN THE BACKGROUND. Watercolor on paper. On the fore-edge of “General Regulations and Orders for the Army,” c. 1814, bound in red morocco, gilt border and edges. Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 11.121.1.

One section in the exhibition, titled “Painting the Pages: Hidden Treasures,” displays books which are neither first editions, nor in any way remarkable for their contents. Rather, it’s a hodge-podge collection which includes a philosophical treatise, an army regulations manual, Horace’s poems in Latin, letters of a British navy officer and memoirs of a French aristocrat. The only thing these books have in common is a watercolor painting on the fore-edge (the part of the book opposite to the spine.)

The paintings can be seen only when the volume is open and the pages are slightly pushed back towards the spine. The pages in the exhibit are held in this position by a vise. Appropriately called “vanishing paintings,” these images have a mesmerizing effect on the viewer.  The eye wanders over the minute details of street scenes, city views and rural landscapes, which are executed with great skill.

Fore-edge painting is not to be confused with writing or painting on the fore-edge when the book is firmly closed and the leaves form a solid surface. The practice of identifying manuscripts and later books by writing their titles on the fore-edge is as ancient as writing itself. It made handling of heavy volumes unnecessary when searching for a particular book. It was also customary to have the name of the owner written on the fore-edge. Unlike these practices, fore-edge painting served little or no utilitarian purpose. In fact, in most cases, their subjects had nothing to do with the content or ownership of the book, as demonstrated by the books in “Hidden Treasures.”

What is known about the history of fore-edge painting? The subject does not have an extensive bibliography. In 1966, Dr. Carl J. Weber, curator of rare books at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, published a historical survey titled “Fore-Edge Painting.” Weber’s research continues to be the main source of information about this peculiar art form.

According to Weber, the earliest surviving examples of painting on the fore-edge are to be found in mid-17th century England. In 1653, brothers Stephen and Thomas Lewis, while working as book-binders for the Booths of Lancashire, painted the patron’s coat of arms on the fore-edge of the books in the family’s library.

The name which is inseparably linked with the history of fore-edge painting is Edwards of Halifax. There were several members of this family of book-binders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who played a crucial role in perfecting and popularizing the “curious art in book decoration,” to use the expression of Weber.

A few words should be said about this remarkable family. The father, William Edwards, was a prosperous book dealer in Halifax, Yorkshire. By 1783, having purchased a few libraries of recently deceased book collectors, he moved to London where he reasonably expected to find a better market for resplendent volumes in his possession. Together with his two older sons, James and John, he set up a business in Pall Mall. Before long, the name “Edwards and Sons” had an international recognition. New connections came with a price: John Edwards was supposedly guillotined in revolutionary Paris while on a business trip to acquire books from French collectors. The family business flourished in both London and in Halifax, where one of William’s youngest sons, Thomas, continued to live, and ended with his death in 1834.

William Edwards and his sons came up with a brilliant idea how to entice patrons to buy books which were not selling well. They employed artists to paint popular scenes on the fore-edge. There is no record of the artists’ names, but it is known that some of them were women. Mrs. Henry Thrale, a customer at “Edwards and Sons,” wrote in a letter that she observed a young lady in the shop as she was painting “a splendid piece of decorative work.” Whether or not such public performance was intended as a marketing device, the word about the books with “vanishing paintings” was out. People were anxious to own these curious creations and did not care about the content of the books.

William and his sons succeeded in increasing the appeal of fore-edge paintings even more by staying tuned to the changes in public tastes. When views of crumbling abbeys and castles, known as “picturesque” images, became popular, the artists working for “Edwards and Sons” promptly copied prints featuring medieval ruins. Other frequently used subjects were famous sites in London and other English cities.

None of the books in the Stark Museum collection can be traced with certainty to the famous “Edwards and Sons.” However, several of them were printed and, probably, decorated at the time when these esteemed book dealers were still in business. The subjects as well as the quality of fore-edge paintings in these books reflect the influence of Edwards of Halifax. For example, a two-volume publication of “Memoirs of Count Grammont,” printed in London in 1811, features a fore-edge painting of Surrey Theater in Blackfriars Road in volume 1 and Italian Opera House in Haymarket in volume 2 — both popular themes in the books decorated at Thomas Edwards’ shop. Similarly, a book with the uninspiring title “General Regulations and Orders for the Army,” printed in London in 1814, and the English poetry anthology, printed circa 1825, contain other widely used London scenes — United Services Military Club in Haymarket and Waterloo Place in Regent Street.

Some of the paintings seem to be specific to the book they decorate. “Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes” (Conversation of the Plurality of Worlds), printed in Dijon in 1894, features on its fore-edge the Grand Entrance to the Palace of Versailles. The author, seventeenth-century French writer Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, explains the Copernican system. One of the treasures of Versailles is a clock which incorporates a model of the Copernican planetary system — an homage to the revolutionary astronomer by King Louis XV.

Another publication with an obvious connection between the content and the painting is “A Selection from the Public and Private Correspondence of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood.” Featured on the fore-edge of both volumes is the battle of Trafalgar, during which Vice-Admiral Collingwood had to take the command of the British fleet after Admiral Lord Nelson had been mortally wounded. It is noteworthy that the owner of this publication also was a senior navy officer, Vice-Admiral Isaac George Manley. It is hardly a stretch to suppose that he commissioned the painting of this famous battle on the fore-edge.

Many books received a decorated fore-edge long after they had been printed. The publication of Horace’s poems in Latin, “Q. Horatii Flacci Opera,” offers an opportunity to illustrate this statement. Printed in 1794, the book was provided with the image of New Bridge in Glasgow at least 46 years later. This is easily proved by the fact that the famous bridge with seven arches designed by Thomas Telford was completed in 1836. Furthermore, a comparison of the fore-edge painting and the popular print “New Bridge and Broomielaw, Glasgow” after the steel engraving by William Henry Bartlett clearly demonstrates that Bartlett’s engraving was meticulously reproduced on the fore-edge of Horace’s poems. Bartlett’s work is dated circa 1840; the artist traveled extensively in Scotland and produced a large number of engravings, many of which were published in Scotland Illustrated in 1838.

The tradition of painting on the fore-edge did not disappear with the Edwards family, however. Later in the 19th century, the quality of this art declined. According to Weber, the craze for books with “vanishing paintings,” particularly among American tourists in London, brought to life a huge amount of poorly executed images painted on the fore-edge of haphazardly chosen books. “The artist… might just as well have chosen a telephone directory or the catalogue of a mail-order house,” Weber dryly commented.

Despite the odds, the art of fore-edge painting survived into the 21st century. Today, one of the best-known practitioners of “curious art” is Martin Frost from England ( One of his students, Jeanne Bennett, continues the tradition of fore-edge painting in Dallas ( She got involved in this art after she found a book with a fore-edge painting in an antique shop.

Remember to fan the pages when you rummage through old books.

WATERLOO PLACE, REGENT STREET LONDON SHOWING BUSY STREET SCENE, CARRIAGES, PEOPLE AND HOUSES. Watercolor on paper. On the for-edge of Poets, c. 1825, bound in black morocco with gilt edges. Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 11.122.1

“Painting the Pages: Hidden Treasures” will be in view at the Stark Museum of Art through Oct. 12. This is a mini-exhibit within the larger exhibition “Tales and Travels” which features first edition books of long-loved tales and of real travels from amazing adventurers, along with paintings, prints, and drawings.  “Tales and Travels” will be on view through Jan. 11.

For information, visit the museum’s website at


Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE Contributor
Issue Magazine – September 2013 

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