When you hold the covers of a book in your hands, you will see three edges and a spine. The top edge and bottom edge are obviously named, but the edge at which you open the book has an unfamiliar title. It is referred to as the FORE-EDGE. Originally this edge of the book was titled in ink for the purpose of identification. Then the old books were stacked one on top of the other with the edge facing outwards in order to read its title. In the beginning, there was no effort to beautify the fore-edge.
“Imagine a flight of stairs, each step representing a leaf of the book. On the tread would be the painting and on the flat surface would be gold. A book painted and gilt in this way must be furled back before the picture can be seen.” (Kenneth Hobson, 1949). This is how a fore-edge painting works. When the book is closed, you do not see the image because the gilding hides the painting. But, when you fan the pages to show the painting at its best and hold them between your fingers or in a display press, the colorful picture appears as if by magic.
Most fore-edge painters working for binding firms did not sign their work, which explains why it is difficult to pinpoint and date the hidden paintings. A few binders did leave their marks. Taylor & Hessey, working in the early nineteenth century, stamped their name on the edge of the binding. The binder/painter from Liverpool working at the end of the century, John Fazakerly, combined colorful decorations with gold embossing on the edges of his bindings, which in themselves are works of art and easily identifiable. In the early twentieth century, Miss C. B. Currie painted and signed her fore-edges, which are often found on bindings with painted ivory insets by Miss Currie. These are the exceptions, as most paintings are recognized only by their design. The “Dover” painter and the “Thistle” painter, for example, are twentieth century fore-edge artists whose paintings are presented unsigned. Through observation and study, we are able to learn the style of each.
In the twentieth century, the single fore-edge painting was expanded to include double fore-edges, an astounding feat of craftsmanship, where two different paintings can be viewed by fanning the pages in first one direction and then the opposite. Neither painting interferes with your view of the other. Another technique is to use all three edges of the book – top, bottom, and fore-edge – to paint a continuous picture, which surrounds the book. In recent times, miniature books less three inches in height have been used as palettes to paint a fore-edge. The smallest of these are the three volumes produced in 1929, 1930, and 1932 by the Kingsport Press in Tennessee. In a fore-edge space of less than one inch, the portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and George Washington are painted to accompany the text related to each of the presidents.
The collection of fore-edge paintings of The Boston Public Library is outstanding; one of the finest in the country. The nucleus of 258 books was first given to the Library by Albert H Wiggin in 1951. Since that time it has been a hidden treasure of the Library. This virtual exhibition is the first time the books have been publicly viewed. These magical paintings have come to light and are now able to be shared through this exhibition to be enjoyed by everyone.