Fore-edge paintings

Following up on Sarah’s What’s that? post from last week, full marks to everyone who said “fore-edge painting” (also acceptable, though less to the point, “1631 x 401 pixel digital image” and “Wilton House“).

Here’s the same image, not cropped as tightly, so you can see the end papers and a glimpse of the fingers fanning out the leaves:1

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

And here is the fore-edge of the same book, closed:

The same volume closed, concealing the fore-edge painting

It’s technically a “hidden fore-edge painting” since the gilt edges conceal it from view almost entirely until the pages are spread open. After gilding the edges, the artist would have slightly fanned the pages, clamped them in position, then executed the painting. Englishman Thomas Edwards (1762-1834), better known as Edwards of Halifax, bound and painted the six-volume set that includes this painting some time in the early 19th century. It’s part of a six-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays, each volume with a different English landscape view, and appears to be the one with “drawing on leaves” listed in his 1815 catalogue for £12 12s.

Thanks to the recent publication of Jeff Weber’s Annotated Dictionary of Fore-Edge Painting Artists & Binders (Los Angeles, 2010), there is a new wealth of information about fore-edge painting and painters. Much of the information given here is drawn from Weber’s work.

While far from common, paintings have appeared on the fore-edges of books since the sixteenth century. The earliest example at the Folger is a book of engraved Bible scenes with a fore-edge painting of  the arms of Oxford University and nature motifs:

Seventeenth-century fore-edge painting

Based on its style, this fore-edge painting was probably made not long after 1677, when the book was published. When most people talk about fore-edge paintings, though, they mean the nineteenth- and twentieth-century scenes, views, and portraits like last week’s Edwards of Halifax view of Wilton House, and the work of John T. Beer (ca. 1826-1903), and Miss C.B. Currie (1849-1940).

Merseyside book collector John T. Beer famously spent his retirement painting the fore-edges of books he owned, leaving a collection of over two hundred fore-edge paintings behind [UPDATE: see Jeff Weber’s comment, below]. Unlike some painters, he did not gild the fore-edges, but he did fan the pages. Thus, the closed book shows a squashed version of the scene. Here is the “closed” view of his rendition of the Martyrdom of William Tyndale, based on a woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and painted on the fore-edge of a 1573 edition of Tyndale’s works.

Fore-edge painting of the Martyrdom of Tyndale by John T. Beer, with the book fully closed

Fanning the pages open makes it look better:

Martyrdom of Tyndale by John T. Beer, with the pages fanned open

The Tyndale volume also makes a good case in point about dating fore-edge paintings: just because the book was published in 1573 does not mean the fore-edge painting was done around that time. Most date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the only certainty is that the painting could not be any earlier than the book on which it’s painted.

Not surprisingly, many fore-edge paintings in the Folger collection are scenes around Stratford-upon-Avon on books by or about Shakespeare, such as this one by Miss C.B. Currie, who produced signed and numbered fore-edge paintings for Sotheran’s, in London:

Fore-edge painting of The Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Miss C.B. Currie

Thanks to Jeff Weber’s work, we now know that “Miss C.B. Currie” was Caroline Billin Curry, but the rest of her life remains a mystery. Mr. and Mrs. Folger acquired this fore-edge painting from Sotheran’s in 1927, shortly after it had been painted. It’s in a copy of Wendell Barrett’s [UPDATE: Barrett Wendell’s] William Shakspere, a study in Elizabethan literature (London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1894) bound by Riviere and Son, with an added leaf of calligraphy reading “This is no. 87 of the Books with Fore-edge Paintings by Miss Currie. The Painting under the gold is a view of The Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon. Signed, C.B. Currie.”

Miss Currie’s painting of the Theatre is a standard, “single” fore-edge painting: fan the pages the right way, and you get a clear image. Fan them the other way, and you get just a faint hint that there’s something else going on besides gilt edge:

Fore-edge painting of The Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Miss C.B. Currie, fanned the wrong way

Not all fore-edge paintings fan just the one way, however. Double fore-edge paintings began to appear in the early twentieth-century. Fan the pages one way, and you get one picture. Fan them the other way, and you get a completely different picture. Close the book, and see only a gilt edge. Here’s the bottom half of a view of Drury Lane Theatre and the bottom half of a view of Covent Garden Theatre:

Double fore-edge painting, showing half of each painting

Fan the pages from front-to-back, and you get the full picture of The Theatre Royal Covent Garden:

Double fore-edge painting, fanned frontward, showing Covent Garden

Fan the pages from back-to-front, and you get the full picture of The Theatre Royal Drury Lane:

Double fore-edge painting, fanned backward, showing Drury Lane

You’d be forgiven for assuming that this must be a book about London theaters, unless you’re a library geek, in which case you’ll have noticed that the call number classification visible in the englarged photos—PQ4642—is for early Italian literature, specifically Torquato Tasso. This is an English-language edition of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata from 1822, presumably bought from a second-hand book dealer by the unknown artist because it was a nice size and shape. Sometimes a book is just a canvas… and sometimes a library’s classification choice would have been different in retrospect, but that’s another story.

  1. All the photos in this post can be enlarged in a new window by clicking the image. []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Head of Collection Information Services at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Previously (from March 2000 through March 2014) she was the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections. Erin teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).


  1. Dear Ms. Blake: I am very pleased to find this celebration of fore-edge paintings at the Folger. Thank you for citing my work. I would like to offer a couple of comments – some explanations – and I should add that it is wonderful to see these books pictured on the internet. Well done!

    Cite: Weber’s book: L. Jeff Weber, The Fore-edge Paintings of John T. Beer, Los Angeles, 2005.

    Beer’s last residence was in Rock Ferry, near Birkenhead.

    “Merseyside book collector John T. Beer famously spent his retirement painting the fore-edges of books he owned, leaving a collection of over two hundred fore-edge paintings behind”

    More correct: At present 190 fore-edge paintings by Beer are known. My book on Beer’s paintings catalogues 189 fore-edges, followed by (nos.) 190-212 which are painted bindings. Following that are 3 bindings designed by Beer and bound by Fazakerley.

    The Tyndale you cite is Weber-Beer 171. It shows the book being sold at auction in 1903, purchased by Bull & Auvanche and purchased in 1904 by the Folger.

    Barrett Wendell’s William Shakspere, a study in Elizabethan literature (London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1894) – this could be cited as Weber-Currie 87.

  2. Thanks so much for the additional information and clarification!

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