The Secret Art of Victorian Fore-edge Painting


They say that beauty is everywhere, often hidden in plain sight.

In the case of the lost art of fore-edge painting this idea can be taken quite literally.

A fore-edge painting is a scene painstakingly rendered on the edges of a book; the pages are fanned and clamped as the artist works and then gilded with gold leaf when the book is closed. This creates a sense of ephemeral beauty: as the painting magically surfaces and then dissolves before ones eyes. The artists who crafted these priceless works of art would have been intimately involved with the specialised process of book-binding.

The university of Iowa, recently discovered secret fore-edge paintings on a selection of unassuming books on the Seasons by Robert Mudie.


Summer by Robert Mudie / Special Collections at the University of Iowa. 

The text block  would have to be held very tightly and it was necessary for the artist to use as dry a brush as possible – to prevent the water-colour spoiling the pages of the book. Water colour was preferred to other paints as it had the added benefit of being absorbed into book leaves without sticking the pages together, or crumbling over time.

The earliest secret fore-edge paintings were floral designs and biblical scenes. However, This popularity of this technique gained in currency in the late 18th century, in a shop owned by Edwards of Halifax.

Fore-edge painting by ‘Edwards of Halifax’ of Wilton House, ca. 1812, on one volume of a 1797 edition of Shakespeare’s plays.


However, the majority of fore-edge paintings date to the late 19th and early 20th century and have been carried out on books originally published in the early 19th century.

Some choice examples follow.


The Modern History of Hindustan, by Thomas Maurice, 1802, with a series of Hindu temples on the bank of a river and minarets of a Mohamedan mosque in the distance.


Latin and Italian poems of Milton translated into English verse, 1808 with a painting of the inn at Edmonton.


Characteristics of women, moral, political, and historical, v.2 1833, by Anna Jameson.


Lyrics of the Heart: With Other Poems, by Alaric Watts, 1851. & the Poetical Works of Robert Browning with Portraits. London: Ballantyne, Hanson & Co. 1899.

Princeton copy of an 1877 reprint of Alice in Wonderland (London: Macmillan and Co.)


For further research into the art of fore-edge painting see Jeff Weber’s Annotated Dictionary of Fore-Edge Painting Artists & Binders (Los Angeles, 2010)

Thank you for reading and please contact me if you come across any (contemporary) examples of victorian fore-edge painting using natural history books.

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