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Fore-edge paintings reveal hidden world on books

A “fore-edge painting” is a design or painting that seems to magically appear on the “fore-edge” of a book. The artwork can only be seen when the pages are fanned, as seen in the animation below. When the book is closed, you don’t see the image because it is hidden by the gilding – the gold leaf applied to the edges of the page

The history of such embellishments is thought to go back to the tenth century but it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the unusual practice really began to take off. The simplest form involved painting onto the fore-edge when the book was closed normally — hence the image appears by default — but a more advanced form involved a rather ingenious technique whereby the painting was applied to the page edges when the stack was fanned at a slight angle. This way the image is hidden from view when the book is closed normally.

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Most often the artwork would reflect the content of the book such as scenes from the Bible or 18th-century scientific works. Sometimes it would depict the owner (through a portrait or picture of their home).

Thanks to the philanthropy of Anne and David Bromer and Albert H. Wiggin, the Boston Public Library keeps one of the finest collections of fore-edge paintings in the United States. Today, much of the collection is available to view online and features more than 200 high-resolution images; complete with additional videos, articles and information.

Several years ago, the University of Iowa and Colossal featured several fore-edge paintings with animated gifs that can also be seen below.

1. The Holy Bible, v.2 1803
‘The Last Supper’

2. The Holy Bible, v.2 1795
The Mount Of Olives From The Slopes Of Zion

3. The causes, appearances, and effects of the
seasonal decay and decomposition of nature, 1837 by Robert Mudie

4. The Holy Bible
Split fore-edge painting

5. Letters of Lady Rachel Russell, 1801
by J. Mawman

6. Analysis of the Game of Chess, 1790
by François-André Danican Philidor

7. Characteristics of women, moral, political, and historical, v.2 1833
by Anna Jameson
Painting of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

8. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, v.1 1838
by Henry Lord Brougham
A view of Philadelphia showing the Delaware


9. Jeanne d’Arc
Author Unknown
The People Of Orleans Greet Joan Of Arc

10. The rod and the gun, 1841
by James Wilson

11. Poems by the late William Cowper, Esq., v.2 1820
by William Cowper


12. The speeches of the right honorable William Pitt, v.2 1808
by William Pitt
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin

13. The poetical works of Thomas Moore, 1865
by Thomas Moore
View Of Enniscorthy, England

14. The world before the flood, 1819
by James Montgomery

15. The complete angler of Isaak Walton and Charles Cotton, 1835
by Izaak Walton


16. The Holy Bible, 1811
St Paul’s Cathedral

17. The causes, appearances, and effects of the
seasonal decay and decomposition of nature
, 1837 by Robert Mudie


18. The lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, [etc.] 1824
by Izaak Walton


19. The anthologies, an extensive collection
of all compositions subsequent to the Liang dynasty


–Compiled by Dwight Widaman with information from the Public Domain Review

Images Courtesy of the  Boston Public Library and University of Iowa: Special Collections & Archives.