The Hidden Paintings On The Edges of 19th Century Books

See the painting hidden in the gilt edges of the pages of the book!! It’s called ‘fore-edge painting‘, and this book is one of several in Cornell University Library – Rare and Manuscript Collections.

A fore-edge painting is a technique of painting on the edges of the pages of a book. The artwork can only be seen when the pages are fanned, as seen in the animation below. When the book is closed, you don’t see the image because it is hidden by the gilding (i.e., the gold leaf applied to the edges of the page).

fore edge paintings

Courtesy of University of Iowa: Special Collections & Archives – The causes, appearances, and effects of the seasonal decay and decomposition of nature, 1837 by Robert Mudie

fore edge painting

Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Library: Special Collections & Archives – The Holy Bible Split fore-edge painting

Wikipedia history:

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.

joan of arc fore edge book painting

Courtesy of Boston Public Library – Jeanne d’Arc Author Unknown The People Of Orleans Greet Joan Of Arc

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 majority of extant examples of fore-edge painting date to the late 19th and early 20th century on reproductions of books originally published in the early 19th century.

Do you remember Crimson Peak (the movie) erotic fore-edge painted scenes? +18

The  “Now you see it, now you don’t” nature of Fore-edge Painting lends itself perfectly for more unorthodox images. Here are samples of the varied range of paintings produced over the years.


Video source:

Photo credits: University of Iowa: Special Collections & ArchivesJohns Hopkins Library: Special Collections & ArchivesBoston Public Library, Crimson Peek, Erotic Fore-edge paintings


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