Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books
A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology

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fore-edge painting

A scene painted on the fore edge of a book, either with the edge solid so that the resultant painting is visible with the book closed, or, in the more accepted use of the term, with the edge fanned out so that the painting is not visible with the book closed. When the painting is done with the leaves fanned out, the edge is generally also gilded or marbled in the usual manner, so that the closed book shows no trace whatsoever of the painting. A double fore-edge painting is one with two paintings, which can be viewed independently by fanning the leaves first one way and then the other. A triple fore-edge painting has a visible scene in addition, in which case the edge is not gilded or marbled.

The painting of fore edges is very old, going back perhaps as early as the 10th century. These earliest fore-edge paintings consisted of symbolical designs. The art reached England in the 14th century, and among the early fore-edge paintings, such as those executed by Thomas Berthelet for King Henry VIII, consisted of treating the fore edge as a solid panel for a heraldic or other motif in gold and colors. The binder who originated the technique of painting a design on the fanned out leaves is unknown, although Samuel Mearne is thought to have employed one or more artists and binders who did this kind of painting. The first known disappearing painting dates from 1649; the art of fore-edge painting under gold reached its pinnacle in England in the latter half of the 17th century.

The art of painting landscapes on fore edges, rather than floral scrolls and armorial bearings, was pioneered by William EDWARDS OF HALIFAX , sometime around 1750. He first used monochrome (brown or gray) and later a full range of colors. Portraits were also included, often flanking a landscape. Subjects portrayed included countrysides, buildings, sports, and scenes based on the content of the book being decorated. The types of books commonly treated in this manner were Bibles and prayer books, the classics, travel books, and poetry.

Although the art of fore-edge painting is old, there is clear evidence indicating that the majority of such paintings are the work of the late 19th and 20th centuries, mainly on books dating from the early 19th century. The great number of these paintings was in response to the demand of collectors and, because there was an insufficient number of authentic examples, appropriate books of an earlier time were painted to satisfy this demand. (50 , 69 , 140 , 236 )

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