Archives and Special Collections

Fore-edge Paintings

The Robert H. Goddard Library's Rare book Collection includes seventeen books with fore-edge paintings. Since it is estimated that there are only a few thousand of these unusual books in the U.S., we are blessed to have such a collection.

The fore-edge of a book is the outer edge of the text block that is parallel to its spine. It is called the fore-edge because during the Renaissance it was the forward edge of the book; books were typically shelved with this side out, instead of with the spine out as we commonly do today. As a result, owners of books would sometimes write information about a book on its fore-edge. For example, the fore-edge pictured below says "GENEALOGIE DEOR IOANNIS BOCCATII" to let the reader know that this book was Genealogiae Deorum by Giovanni (Joannis) Boccaccio

Fore-edge of a rare book in the collection

Fore-edge painting is a curious art form in book decoration that has delicate watercolors painted on the edges of the leaves of the volume and concealed under gilded fore-edges. The binder would hire an artist to fan the pages of the book, hold them in that position with a vise, and paint the image. Once it was dry, the artist removed the book from the vise and gold leaf was applied to the edge to help hide the painting. Thus, when the fore-edge of the book is slightly fanned, the image appears; when the book is closed, the painting remains protected and hidden.

This style of decoration began in the middle of the 17th century, reached its zenith early in the 19th century, and essentially died out by the end of the 1800s. These paintings were primarily, but not solely, done by the British. Although found in all types of books, these paintings often adorned poetry books. These watercolors show a tremendous variety in subject, sometimes having some connection to the topic or author of the volume, but often not.

The very unusual side-by-side painting and the uncommon two-way (or double) paintings portrayed in several of our volumes make our collection very special. Our earliest volume is dated 1748; others are dated from 1809 to 1860. These items do not circulate, but may be examined upon request.

For more information about fore-edge paintings, see Carl J. Weber's 1966 Fore-Edge Paintings.

Fore-edge painting of Boston

Above is a fore-edge painting of an American city believed to be Boston. It is from Progress of Discovery on the Northern Coasts of America by Patrick Tytler, which was printed in 1832.

Below are both paintings of a double fore-edge painting; the upper one is of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the other is of the Tower of London. The double fore-edge painting is from Sir Christopher Wren and His Times by James Elmes, which was printed in 1852.

Fore-edge painting of St. Pauls Cathedral in London

Fore-edge paintinf of the Tower of London