You Can't Tell a Book
By Its Edge

Fore-edge paintings are elaborate illustrations painted, not in a book, or on the cover or spine, but on the edges of the pages.

A "fore-edge painting," he called it, yet it seemed an ordinary book and not a painting that was placed in my hands.

From the descriptive name, I had thought it must be a square block with a picture on all four sides ("four-edge painting"). So, it was a great surprise to discover that in addition to being a book with a story in the text, the book was also a work of art, with a carefully concealed picture telling yet another story, a uniqueness that has fascinated me ever since. So rare are such books that I was 32 years old before I saw my first one.

Fore-edge paintings are elaborate illustrations painted, not in a book, or on the cover or spine, but on the edges of the pages. To make them, an artist starts with a completely finished, printed book, usually an especially regarded title or binding. The slightly spread pages are pressed together in a vise-like clamp while the artist paints all the detail of a scene or portrait on the surface formed by the compressed pages, exposing only a hair's width of each individual page. An examiner would find only a few tiny marks apparent on any one page, but when viewed altogether, the tiny, unintelligible marks on each page compose a complete, small painting that can be very handsome. Released from the clamp, the book springs back into normal shape, and the scene becomes invisible, set to reappear only when knowledgeable hands compress the pages at the proper angle.

In all respects, these special books appear typical. Title and author are inscribed on the cover or spine, and interior pages bear the text as the author wrote it. Usually, the pages are gilded, and often the book is bound in leather, since usually only choice books were decorated in this manner. But no clue alerts a reader or buyer to the secret painting concealed on its edge.

The earliest fore-edge-painted books probably date to Europe in the 1500s and were most common in England from about the mid-1600s through the1800s. Today, they are in museums, libraries, and antique and antiquarian bookshops, more prevalent in England than in the United States. They are an odd collectible, in some ways. You cannot display them easily, observe them casually, or describe them simply. It is possible to appreciate a fore-edge-painted book as a mere book--the binding, the title, the author--not even aware of the sheer, artistic delight it hides.

I have thought about Samford students and the stories they conceal. With every one of them, a fascinating background lurks just below the obvious. Samford has chosen to respect their privacy. In our daily comings and goings, we rarely know or announce the relationships of individuals: just whose father or grandfather is a famous singer, athlete, author or preacher; the student whose parent is in prison; the young lady whose family has a towering business presence, probably able to purchase the entire University outright; the fellow whose mother is a leading professor at another university; the daughter of a powerful American office-holder; a niece of a foreign government official; a student who has never known a father; a student cancer survivor. The pictures are there, though made unobvious by the camouflage of youth, the rush of daily schedules, obligations, friendships.

Just as no one page of a fore-edge-painted book can convey the whole picture, it is together that we make our greatest impact. A university unites people, and together, the community becomes significant, each lending a story, a uniqueness to the Samford composite. As another academic year closes, and we prepare to award about 900 degrees, a delightful picture of a vital university is revealed, formed by thousands of current and former students, all part of the 161-year-old Samford picture.

Thomas E. Corts

Note: Samford University Library holds a number of books with fore-edge paintings. For further information about this unusual art form, see Carl J. Weber, Fore-Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of A Curious Art In Book Decoration, 1966.

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Maintained by University Relations. Last updated: June 18, 2002

Spring 2002
Vol. 19, No. 1

Seasons Staff

William Nunnelley
Mary Wimberley
Associate Editor
Jack Brymer
Contributing Writer
Scott Camp
Multimedia Graphic Designer
Donna Fitch
Web Designer & Editor
Janica York
Editorial Assistant
Caroline Baird

Samford University Alumni Association Officers 2001-02

Paula Hovater '69
Rod Hovater '67

Bennie Bumpers '63
Vice President

Cyndi Stephenson '85 Vice President

Seasons is published quarterly by Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, Alabama 35229, and is distributed free to all alumni of the University, as well as to other friends. Samford University is an Equal Opportunity Institution and welcomes applications for employment and educational programs from all individuals regardless of race, color, age, sex, disability or national or ethnic origin.