After seeing a fore-edge painting for the first time one truly understands John Carter's statement in ABC for Book Collectors , that a “bibliomaniac is a book collector with a slightly wild look in his eye” (Carter 38). While there is no substitute for seeing a fore-edge painting in-person the following illustration may prove useful.
(Please select one of the below links to view a video of a fore-edge painting being revealed.)
Two main theories concerning the development of fore-edge painting have been put forward. These are the “library-position” and the “craftsmanship” theories (Swan 14).
The first of these theories goes back to the Middle Ages when the pages of books were made of parchment or vellum and tended to be large and cumbersome, and because of this they were often shelved flat on their sides with the edge of the text block facing out. (The relatively thick parchment and vellum pages allowed bookbinders to fold the full sheets of the quires only once, thus creating a folio volume.) The practice of shelving them horizontally, with the edge of the pages facing out, offered the owner or librarian a convenient space to place a mark of ownership or the title of the volume. As paper-making developed, and it became practical for use by bookmakers, this new and more malleable material allowed them to create smaller volumes. Smaller volumes allowed their owners to shelve them vertically. The spine of the book then became the logical place for the title to go and the fore-edge of the book lent itself to identify the owner of the book. Simple name writing developed into more elaborate decorations including: family mottoes, coats-of-arms, royal monograms, crests, etc. The decorations, when applied, were painted or stamped onto the edge with a hot tool (Weber 21-22).
The “craftsmanship” theory was put forward by Cyril Davenport and “assumes that the painting of book-edges is the natural outgrowth of the desire of the bookbinders to decorate the whole book” (Swan 15-16). Considering that some of the earliest examples of books were decorated, it is not unreasonable to assume that some bookbinders felt that leaving the fore-edge of the text block blank meant their work was unfinished. Perhaps a combination of these theories explains the origin of fore-edge decoration.
The term fore-edge painting is generally used for an English book decoration technique that was commonly practiced in the second half of the seventeenth century in London and Edinburgh . In the eighteenth century the Edwards of Halifax brought fore-edge painting to new levels in execution and popularity. The Edwards family revived the practice “whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and then held fast in a clamp or vise, was decorated with painted views or conversation pieces. The edges were then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remained concealed (and protected) while the book was closed: fan out the edges and it reappears” (Carter 104).