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National Library News

October/November 1996, vol. 28, nos. 10-11

Invisible Paintings

by Peter Rochon, Rare Book Collection

Fore-edge paintings are miniature paintings that decorate the fore-edges of books. They are intriguing because they are not always visible. Closed, the book displays only gilt edges; to see the decorative paintings, the observer must flex or fan out the fore-edge. By holding the text block of the book in a fanned-out position, the watercolour artist is able to paint on the fore-edge a design or scene. When the paint has dried, the binder applies gilt over the fore-edge.

Nativity scene (from In Memorian).
Nativity scene (from In Memorian).

This form of book decoration dates back to the mid-seventeenth century. The earliest known signed and dated fore-edge painting, by Stephen and Thomas Lewis of London, is a family coat of arms painted in 1653 on the fore-edge of a 1651 Bible. Other early examples were mainly floral and heraldic designs, while later paintings showed landscapes, vistas of residences, sporting scenes, picturesque views and religious scenes. In the late eighteenth century “double fore-edge paintings” began to appear. Fanned out to the right, the fore-edge reveals one painting, while fanning out to the left reveals the second painting.

Although practised for over 100 years, this method of decoration was not widely known before James Edwards (1756-1816) of Halifax, England, adorned the fore-edges of many books published in small editions. In the mid-nineteenth century the art of fore-edge painting spread from Great Britain to the Continent and eventually to North America. In many cases, the illustration was unrelated to the content of the book: for example, a religious scene often decorated a book of poetry. The design of the fore-edge illustration could be the result of the artist’s own inspiration or a commission by a patron. It apparently was common to find different fore-edge illustrations on different copies of the same edition of a single work; conversely, the same design might be painted on completely different works.

The National Library’s Rare Book Collection has nine examples of fore-edge paintings. These books are handsomely bound in full leather, usually morocco, with gold-tooled decorations on the boards and spines, and gilt edges. All the bindings are of exceptional craftsmanship. Only three are signed, two by Bickers and Son and the other by SAMS Bookseller & Binder, both of London. The Bickers and Son bindings show two almost identical fore-edge paintings of a New Brunswick landscape on entirely different books, one a Bible and the other a collection of poems and plays. The scenes are strikingly similar, the only differences being variations in the foreground and the size of the paintings.

These nine books were acquired specifically for their fore-edge paintings. Early acquisitions were bought at antiquarian book fairs, while later purchases were made through antiquarian booksellers’ catalogues. The object was to acquire books with fore-edge paintings showing Canadian scenes or depicting Canadian-oriented activities, such as whaling.

Following is a list of the books with fore-edge paintings held in the National Library’s Rare Book Collection. The descriptions of the fore-edge paintings are from annotations in the copy itself or from information provided by cataloguers and book dealers. Precise identifications, especially of views, are often difficult to make with any degree of accuracy.

Unidentified painting (from Select Collection of Songs, vol.3).
Unidentified painting (from Select Collection of English Songs, vol. 3).

Beattie, James. The Poetical Works of James Beattie, and the Poems and Plays of Oliver Goldsmith. With illustrations by M’Whirter, Hay and Vallance. Edinburgh: W.P. Nimmo, [1865]. Fore-edge painting of a view in New Brunswick. (PR3316 B4 1865 Reserve)

The English Version of the Polyglott Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, with a Copious and Original Selection of References to Parallel and Illustrative Passages, Exhibited in a Manner Hitherto Unattempted. London: Printed for S. Bagster, 1825. Fore-edge painting of a scene in New Brunswick. (BS 1825 L65 Reserve)

A List of All the Officers of the Royal Marines on Full and Half-Pay: With an Index and a Succession of Colonels. War-Office: 8th February 1812. London: C. Roworth, 1812. Fore-edge painting of Sydney Cove. (Not yet catalogued)

Whale-hunting scene (from New Manual of Devotions).
Whale-hunting scene (from New Manual of Devotions).

A New Manual of Devotions, in Three Parts. 24th edition, corrected. London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington, 1810. Fore-edge painting of a whale-hunting scene. (BV245 N48 1810 Reserve)

A Select Collection of English Songs, with Their Original Airs and a Historical Essay on the Origin and Progress of National Song. By the Late Joseph Ritson, Esq. In Three Volumes. The Second Edition with Additional Songs and Occasional Notes. By Thomas Park. London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington [etc.], 1813. Three volumes with unidentified fore-edge paintings, signed MA. (M1740 S44 1813 Reserve)

New Brunswick scene (from Poetical Works of James Beattie).
New Brunswick scene (from Poetical Works of James Beattie).

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The British Almanac of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for the Year of Our Lord 1864, Being Bissextile, or Leap Year. Companion to the Almanac, or, Yearbook of General Information for 1864. London: Knight and Co., [1863]. Fore-edge painting of a Spanish frigate. (AY754 B75 1864 Reserve)

Tennyson, Alfred. Enoch Arden, etc. By Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L. Poet Laureate. London: Strahan, 1869. Double fore-edge paintings: the first of a snipe-shooting scene, the second of an ice-skating scene. (PR5556 A1 1869 Reserve)

Ice-skating scene (from Enoch Arden).
Ice-skating scene (from Enoch Arden).

Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. 4th ed. London: E. Moxon, 1851. Fore-edge painting of a Nativity scene, signed M. (PR5562 A1 1851 Reserve)

Thomson, James. The Seasons. By James Thomson; with Engraved Illustrations from Designs Drawn on Wood by John Bell...[et al.]; with a Life of the Author by Patrick Murdoch; Edited by Bolton Corney, Esq. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1842. Double fore-edge paintings: the first a view of Quebec City as seen from the opposite shore, the second a view of Montreal from the harbour. (PR3732 S4 1842 Reserve)


Weber, Carl J., Fore-Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration. New York: Irvington-on-Hudson: Harvey House, 1966.

Weber, Carl J., A Thousand and One Fore-Edge Paintings: With Notes on the Artists, Bookbinders, Publishers and Other Men and Women Connected with the History of a Curious Art. Waterville, Me.: Colby College Press, 1949.

Copyright. The National Library of Canada. (Revised: 1996-11-06).