You Can't Tell a Book
By Its Edge
A "fore-edge painting," he called it, yet
it seemed an ordinary book and not a painting that was placed in
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
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.