Fore-edge paintings on Cowper's Poems


This technique of adding decoration to the front edges of a book reached the height of its popularity in 19th century Britain.  The “hidden” fore-edge paintings seen here were created by fanning the pages of the book, clamping them into position, and then painting with watercolors on the fanned edges. Invisible when the book is closed (especially if the edges have also been gilt), the painting appears, as if by magic, when the pages are fanned open again.

Fore-edge paintings imbue books with special status or significance and they can tell us a lot about 19th century readers and collectors. One area of study considers the types of books chosen to be decorated in this way because these were the texts and authors people felt a special connection with. Religious books such as Bibles, psalters, and books of sermons were often painted. Books traditionally considered essential to a well-stocked library, such as Greek and Latin classics, as well as books by beloved British authors (such as Sir Walter Scott, William Cowper, and Shakespeare) are another major category of books that were painted. Books about the popular pastimes of travel in the English countryside and sporting activities were other favorites.

The paintings seen here depict picturesque, bucolic scenes on the River Thames in the village of Nuneham Courtenay, England. Special Collections and Archives holds over 40 fore-edge paintings in its collection and welcomes students who are interested in exploring this fascinating area of the history of the book.

Author/Photographer Cowper, William,1731-1818
Publisher London: Printed for John Sharpe
Date 1817-1818
Extent 3 volumes
Institution Kent State University
Repository Special Collections and Archives
LC Classification Number PR3380 .A2 1817
Portion Digitized Fore-edge paintings
Access Rights This digital object is owned by Kent State University and may be protected by U.S. Copyright law (Title 17, USC). Please include proper citation and credit for use of this item. Use in publications or productions is prohibited without written permission from Kent State University. Please contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives for more information.
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Curated by Kathleen Siebert Medicus with guest contributors