Art history students create an exhibit of rare fore-edge paintings

By Rita Buettner

The Marion and Henry J. Knott Fore-edge Painting Collection consists of more than 300 volumes dating from the 16th–20th century.

Rosie Waniak, ’18, hadn’t even heard of fore-edge painting before she enrolled in an art history course called Museums: History, Politics, Practices. She quickly delved into the art form, learning its history and nuances and working with her classmates to research and create an exhibit of the artwork.

“I’m interested in pursuing a career in museums, and I felt like this class could provide a lot of insight into the thoughts and ideas that drive these institutions,” said Waniak, a South Brunswick, N.J., resident who is majoring in art history and English.

“I love the hands-on and critical-thinking elements of the course. The final project of creating a display is especially interesting, because it is a unique challenge that demands a synthesis of everything we are studying throughout the semester.”

Waniak and her classmates worked to curate the exhibit with Kerry Boeye, Ph.D., associate professor of fine arts, and Loyola·Notre Dame Library’s Archives and Special Collections Department.

The exhibit, which was on display from Dec. 7-Jan. 31 in the Loyola·Notre Dame Library, featured works from the Library’s Marion and Henry J. Knott Fore-edge Painting Collection.

A fore-edge painting is typically created in watercolors on the fore-edge of a book while it is fanned out, so that the painting is not visible when the book is closed. When the book is open, however, the painting appears along the page edges. The art form seems to have originated in England during the 17th century.

“This is one of the largest collections of fore-edge paintings in the country,” said Anna Clarkson, head of Archives and Special Collections.

A fore-edge painting is typically created in watercolors on the fore-edge of a book while it is fanned out, so that the painting is not visible when the book is closed. When the book is open, however, the painting appears along the page edges.

“This exhibit marked a very special opportunity to see a stellar collection that is rarely available to the general public, due to the fragility of the collection and the complexity in displaying such intricate objects in a safe manner. We are grateful for the assistance of the Johns Hopkins Department of Conservation and Preservation, who designed and constructed custom-made mounts, as well as for conducting scientific research on the collection.”

The Marion and Henry J. Knott Fore-edge Painting Collection consists of more than 300 volumes dating from the 16th–20th century, with the bulk of the collection dating to the 19th century.

“The relative lack of published research on fore-edge painting challenged the students, but this led them to exciting discoveries while studying the books for the exhibition,” Boeye said.

As part of his course, Boeye led his students in an analysis of the history of each book, discussing the time period and the artwork and how the paintings were created.

“We think about these as objects, so the binding is what makes them attractive,” Boeye told the students of the books. “The binding was probably done at the same time as the fore-edge painting.”

The students asked questions as they gathered around the collection to examine the paintings more closely and from different angles.

As an art form, fore-edge painting seems to have originated in England during the 17th century.

Boeye spoke about the painting processes and what was happening in history as each book was painted.

“What was going on in 1791?” he asked.

“The French Revolution,” the students chorused.

“And why would they want to paint landscapes on the sides of their books?”

“Because landscapes were popular,” a student replied.

“Do you guys remember the TV show Pimp My Ride?” Boeye said, and the students laughed. “This is like pimping your book.”

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