Here’s something you don’t get to see every day, even if you work with rare books:

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The practice of decorating the fore-edge of a book with a hidden painting was “popularised in the 18th [century] by John Brindley and (in particular) Edwards of Halifax, whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and then held fast, is decorated with painted views or conversation pieces.¹ The edges are then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remains concealed (and protected) while the book is closed; fan out the edges and it reappears.”²

The Archives and Special Collections holds eight examples of hidden fore-edge paintings. Below are pictures of three of them, showing the edge both closed and fanned.

fore-edge painting
Pleasures of Imagination by Mark Akenside (London : Cadell and Davies, 1796) – A handwritten note inside the book identifies the scene as “Belsay Castle, Northumberland.” [PR3312.P5 1796]
fore-edge painting
The Poetical Works of George Herbert (London : James Nisbet and Co., 1856) – The gilt edges are also “gauffered” in a fleur-de-lis pattern. The landscape looks like the Tower of London on the Thames. [PR3507.A1 1856]
Poems by Samuel Rogers
Poems by Samuel Rogers (London : Cadell, 1834) – all three images are of the same book: this one has a double fore-edge painting, one visible when fanned front-to-back, and a second when fanned back-to-front! [PR5234.A1 1834 c.3]
Our last two examples are multi-volume works. When closed, the edges are plain gilt, just like Poems above, so I have left that out and show only the fanned images:

The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell
The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell (London : Henry Colburn, 1828) – in two volumes, each with a hunting scene. [PR4410.A2 1828]
The Works of Lord Byron
The Works of Lord Byron (London : Murray, 1819) – in three volumes, with scenes of the Eurotas river in Greece, Chillon Castle in Switzerland, and a view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley. [PR4350.E19]
If you want to learn more about this astonishing form of book decoration, I highly recommend the following:

¹ You can see pictures of how the book is clamped in position, without damage, on this page from Johns Hopkins University.

² Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2006), 8th ed., corr., 108.

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