Fore-edge paintings by John T. Beer in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

IMG_0314 edit2I was delighted to discover this week that the Cardiff Rare Books Collection includes two books with fore-edge paintings by the artist John T. Beer. Fore-edge paintings are watercolour illustrations applied to the outside edges of a book’s pages; the technique dates back to before the invention of printing, possibly as early as the 10th century.


A painting of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, arriving in Wales to a hostile reception appears on Cardiff’s copy of the third edition of Fox’s journals, published in 1765 (Weber-Beer 105).

John T. Beer was a successful Merseyside clothier and an avid book collector, who turned to fore-edge painting after his retirement and produced hundreds of works between 1884 and 1900. As he was not a professional painter working on commission, Beer was able to select books from his own collection, including several incunabula, and decorate them to his own taste. As our examples show, he often took inspiration from the contents of the book.

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“John preaching in the Wilderness”: Beer’s illustration on an early 16th century Latin Bible, printed at Lyon by Jacob Mareschal in 1514 (Weber-Beer 15).

IMG_0299 editIn the 1600s, some bookbinders even discovered they could paint just inside the fore-edges of a book then cover the outer edges with gilt to create a hidden illustration that was undetectable when the book was closed and visible only when the pages were fanned. Beer did not gild the fore-edges, but he did fan the pages before adding his illustration. Thus, the closed book shows a slightly squashed version of the scene, with the correct proportions only appearing with the pages are fanned open.

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The “open” scene on Fox’s journal. The artist would have fanned the pages and gripped them in a vice before applying the watercolour.

Beer did not sell any of his works in his lifetime and left more than 200 fore-edge paintings and painted bindings when he died. His entire collection was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in November, 1903, when these two volumes were apparently purchased for Cardiff Library.


Fanning the pages of the Biblia Sacra to show the more “open” illustration.

Weber, Jeff, The fore-edge painting of John T. Beer. Los Angeles, 2005.

4 responses to “Fore-edge paintings by John T. Beer in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

  1. Thank you for your lovely assessment of Beer’s work – clearly much of the data written is supplied from my book, which is not cited. Weber, Jeff, The Fore-edge Painting of John T. Beer. Los Angeles, 2005. Your 1514 Bible is Weber-Beer 15. The George Fox Journal is cited as Weber-Beer 105. Congratulations on the marvelous pictures!

    • Many thanks for your comment and for the additional details. We don’t have a copy of your book here, but no doubt it is the original source for much of the information found online and I’m very happy to add a citation. Thank you also for the references which I will add and I am glad you liked our post on Beer. Hopefully there are more works to be found in the collection.

  2. Pingback: The Cardiff Rare Books Project: historical highlights and favourite finds | Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau

  3. Seems that Beer was happy to be an amateur Fore edge painter. Note that the tradition is still continued today by a few of us steadfast FEPpers. I have painted over 3300 works, but unlike Beer, mine have been discreetly hidden under the gilded page edges
    Checkout Frost Fore edge painting at

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