A Dying Art: Fore-Edge Paintings by Martin Frost

Martin Frost is the very last working fore-edge painter on the planet. Over the past four decades he has been producing artwork in places that people are unable to see, or may only find if they know exactly where to look.

There is certainly something magical to the art of fore-edge painting. Infront of your very eyes the gilded facet of a book is metamorphosed into a miniature painting. Fantastic figures and portraits that bring the subject matter alive as the pages are fanned. Like all the best magic tricks, it is amazingly straightforward: an image is painted onto the ‘stepped’ incline of the pages which fades away as soon as it is flat.

Fore-edge painter Martin Frost works from studios in West Sussex, England. He has decorated the sides of more than 3500 books, which include examples of the scarce all-edge, split and two-way doubles and now binds the majority of his books as well. He has published a workshop manual, written articles and lectured to many major organizations interested in the art and craft of the book.

The phrase fore-edge painting stems from Renaissance times, when books have been typically shelved with bindings to the back and the paper edge towards the front. Owners would label the edges of the paper with the author’s name and the book’s title. Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the British royal family, is credited with inventing these vanishing fore-edge paintings. To this day, it is generally regarded as a British form of artwork.

The level of popularity of fore-edge paintings hit their peak in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, because of the bookbinding firm of Edwards of Halifax. The business employed skilled artists to paint stunning landscapes on the edges of books it then sold to customers. The names of these artists may possibly remain forever unknown, because just a handful of fore-edge paintings are signed.

Martin Frost is the world’s last remaining commercial fore-edge painter, producing elaborate designs and scenes along the gilded edges of books.