The Cutting (Fore-)Edge of Art | Newberry

The Cutting (Fore-)Edge of Art

Fore-edge painting reached a new level of artistry in eighteenth-century England. The fore-edge painting of this Bible, printed in England in 1794, offers a view of Ensham Church and cross, Oxfordshire. 

This fore-edge painting of Westminster Bridge comes from a Book of Common Prayer published by the Church of England in 1791.

Dear Walter:

What is your favorite decorative element of books?

—Janice Flossmoor, Los Angeles, CA

One day, as you are perusing your collection of mid-eighteenth-century English texts, you decide to look through a Volume with which you have not made a close acquaintance, and attempt to remove it from your Shelves. But, much to your surprise, your attempt is thwarted, and the book falls from your Grasp onto the floor (perhaps your hands are shaking...perhaps you should not have consumed that second latte). You reach down to remove your precious book from its foot-warn resting place, and as you do you see that the pages of the fore-edge of the book (located on the side opposite that of the spine) have fanned, revealing a lovely watercolor picture. What manner of artistic curiosity is this! you wonder. It is, Ms. Flossmoor, a fore-edge painting.

Fore-edge painting is a storied decorative Technique, of which there are many varieties. The earliest fore-edge Paintings were intended to be seen whenever the Volume was closed. Another variety of fore-edge painting, the one with which you have recently become acquainted, in which the pages of the fore-edge must be fanned outward for the image to be seen, is an almost exclusively English Invention. The earliest example of this technique dates to the mid-seventeenth century, but it wasn’t until the middle of the eighteenth century, which brought with it the pioneering artistry of binder William Edwards of Halifax, that the Practice truly came into its own. Edwards also introduced what was to become the standard Subject Matter for such paintings: quiet English towns and countrysides.

But wait! What’s this? As you pick up your book its pages flop over backwards (perhaps you should relinquish that persistent habit of caffeinated consumption), but as they do they reveal...another picture! You now conclude that this is not art but Witchcraft! Do not fret, Ms. Flossmoor, this is not witchcraft. This is a double fore-edge painting. A double fore-edge painting contains two pictures, one which can be seen when you fan the Pages up, and another which can be seen when you fan the pages down. Such decoration is rare, and highly sought after. This is incredible! That it is. You are lucky to be in possession of so fine a volume!

If the foregoing has sufficiently piqued your interest in fore-edge Paintings, then you will be glad to learn that the Newberry contains a fair number of such paintings. You are free to access these volumes with a “fore-edge paintings (binding)” search in the Newberry’s online catalog and subsequently view them at your leisure. Perhaps I shall! I hope you will.