Specimens of the early English poets, 1790, bound by Edwards of Halifax.
Fore-edge painting of the house of Sir Thomas Claverings, Oxwell Park, Northumberland
The Boston Public Library has a most excellent online collection of fore-edge book paintings. Anne C. Bromer's short essay there explains the development of this art form after the sixteenth century, when 'a Venetian artist, Cesare Vecellio, devised a way to enhance the beauty of a book by painting on its edges. The images, mostly portraits, were easily viewed when the covers of the book were closed. A century later in England, Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the royal family, developed the art of the “disappearing painting” on the fore-edge of a book. ... In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, fore-edge painting reached its height in England. The famous bookbinding firm, which is always referred to with “the territorial suffix” Edwards of Halifax, was responsible for this surge of interest. Artists were employed to paint landscape scenes with country estates on the fore-edges of books, which were then handsomely bound in painted vellum covers or in exotic leather bindings.'
The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, 1865
Fore-edge painting of the Pont a la Carraca, Florence
The river scene in Florence above is actually one of two landscapes on this edition of Thomas Moore's poems. It is an example of a double fore-edge - when the pages are bent to the right instead of the left, a different scene appears, showing Enniscorthy in Wexford. Sometimes fore-edge landscapes were directly related to the book's contents, like the edition of Oberon below, or William Rae Wilson's Travels in the Holy Land, Egypt &c. &c. (1831), volume 1 of which shows a view of Joppa and volume 2 a view of Corfu. Others seem to have no obvious link - a four volume edition of Homer features views of Eton from the river, Hampton Court Place, Oystermouth Castle and the city of Bath.
Oberon : a poem, from the German of Wieland by William Sotheby, 1798.
Fore-edge painting of a scene from the book - "Go hence to Bagdad'"
I've written here before about our fascination with the 'homes and haunts' of writers, in books like Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape and Edward Thomas's The Literary Pilgrim in England. Looking through the Boston Public Library collection you can see how often fore-edge paintings provided picturesque views of the author's home. Examples include Robert Burns' cottage, Alexander Pope's villa, William Cowper's house at Weston and the childhood home of John Wesley to accompany A collection of Hymns, for the use of the people called Methodists (1825). Mary Brunton, author of Emmeline, was born on the Island of Burray, giving the bookbinders scope for a view of blue-grey mountains and sea. Milton's birthplace in Bread Street, London, may have been harder to idealise, but the school he attended, St Paul's, provided a splendid vista, while other editions of his work featured a view of London Bridge and the cottage at Chalfont St Giles to which he retired during the Great Plague of London.