The Art of Fore-edge Painting

Today, our exploration of Special Collections & Archives uncovers seldom-seen examples of disappearing fore-edge paintings!

Fore-edge painting, simply put, is the technique of applying paint to the edges of the pages of a book. Two types of fore-edge paintings survive, including those applied to closed fore-edges (visible) and adversely, applied to fanned fore-edges (disappearing).

Above: The Pilgrim’s Progress: In Two Parts

While visible fore-edge painting dates back (possibly) as far as the 10th century with the earliest signed and dated example citing 1653, the techniques employed to create mysterious, disappearing fore-edge paintings developed slightly later and reached peak popularity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Above: The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier

In order to produce a disappearing fore-edge painting, a skilled artisan renders the desired scene on the fanned pages of a manuscript using watercolor pigment. After the paint has thoroughly dried, the book is closed and subsequently, gold is applied to the fore-edges. The watercolor painting is thus rendered “invisible” by gilding and only becomes visible when the text’s pages are fanned.

Above: The Poetical Works of John Milton

These and several other fore-edge painted books gems are available for viewing in Special Collections & Archives Monday-Thursday, 9:00-4:30 and Friday, 9:00-12:00! You can also learn more about the history and production techniques of fore-edge painting by perusing books like this one.

Found in the Archives is a recurring series of crazy cool stuff found in the Monroe Library’s Special Collections & Archives.

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