Fore-Edge Paintings

Paradise Lost 1
From Paradise Lost by John Milton

The Nancy Bird Fore-edge painting collection is dedicated to the memory of Nancy Bird, Head of Special Collections from 1960-1974. Many of the paintings on the books housed in Special Collections are of landscapes or other scenes.  Each one holds a different image and is truly a work of art.  We even have one book that has a double painting.  When you fan the pages one way you get one scene and then  fanned the other way there is a different scene.  The fore-edge painting collection is home to 27 titles encompassing 35 volumes.  Fore-edge paintings began in the 1400s, before the invention of the printing press, when books were written on vellum. Since vellum is a heavy material and cannot be folded with the neatness and compactness of printed books today, books were shelved horizontally with the unbound pages facing outward and the title of the book written on the fore-edge.  After the invention of the printing press and with the modernization of printing and publishing books when the spine became the method of printing the title, book owners used the fore-edge to identify to whom the book belonged.  Books then began to be decorated with gold leaf, gold leaf edges and other techniques to enhance their beauty.  For most books with fore-edge paintings, you see the gold leaf edge but not the painted scene until you hold the book in a certain way in order for the painting to appear.

A fore-edge painting is made by fanning the pages, clamping the book securely, applying water-color landscapes or other miniatures.  The entire process takes several days or even weeks to complete to allow for drying time.

It is fun to show these to our students and patrons who have never seen one and to see their surprise when the painting comes to life.

silex scintillans
From Silex Scintillans by Henry Vaughan
the history of sir charles FEP
From The History of Sir Charles Grandison by Mr. Samuel Richardson
the book of gems
From The Book of Gems, edited by S.C. Hall

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