Sometimes the greatest artworks are hidden in plain sight. Case in point: the University of Iowa recently discovered a four-volume set of scientific books from 1837 contains hidden paintings on the edges of the pages, which only show up when you fan them part-way open. These "Fore-Edge Paintings" are everywhere, and they're beautiful.

As Flavorwire explains, Fore-Edge Paintings go back to the 16th century, "when Italian artist Cesare Vecellio (cousin of Renaissance painter Titian) started using his books as a canvas in order to beautify them." A bunch of them were posted by the University of Iowa and the Boston Public Library, and check out some of our favorites below.

Robert Mudie: Autumn, Spring, Winter and Summer, 1837

(via This Is Colossal/University of Iowa)

Jerusalem Delivered: a Heroic Poem, translated from the Italian of Torquato Tasso, by John Hoole, London, 1797 with three paintings: Trojans Arch, Ancona (left), Tasso in Prison (center) and the Bridge Of Sighs, Venice (right)

The Modern History of Hindustan, by Thomas Maurice, 1802, with a series of Hindu temples on the bank of a river and minarets of a Mohamedan mosque in the distance.

The Holy Bible, printed by R. Bowyer and J. Fittler in 1795, with Adam and Eve in the Garden Of Eden and The Last Supper, after Leonardo da Vinci, on a Holy Bible, printed by Sir D. H. Blair and J. Bruce in 1803

The Speeches of the Right Honorable WIlliam Pitt, in the House Of Commons (vol. 1), 1808, with a battle scene and the portraits of Napoleon and William Pitt

Latin and Italian poems of Milton translated into English verse, 1808 with a painting of the inn at Edmonton

Paradise Lost by John Milton, printed in 1809, with the view of London Bridge

The book titled Analysis of the game of chess with a painting of chess players and a chessboard

Lady Jane Grey, a tale in two books with poems in English and Latin, by Francis Hodgson, printed in 1809, with the paintings of Lady Jane Grey and Edward VI with floral decorations.

A General History of Quadrupeds by Thomas Bewick, printed in 1811 with a hunting man and his dog

Song of the Chace, printed in 1811, with a picture of the finish of a horse race

History Of The University and Colleges of Cambridge (vol. 1), by George Dyer, 1814 with a fore-edge painting of New York in 1750.

Helga, by William Herbert, from 1815, showing fishermen beaching a boat

Historical Illustrations of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold, by John Hobhouse, printed in 1818, with a scene of Venice

The World Before The Flood by James Montgomery, 1819. The painting depicts a scene with some cave dwellers. The males preparing to defend themselves against a mammoth and some other wild animals while the women and children hide in their cave home.

Poems by the late William Cowper, printed in 1820, with three paintings on each volume after "The Cries of London"

Matches, Mackerel, Scissors

Primroses, Milk and Oranges

Peas, Strawberries, Cherries

Chairs, Love Songs, Gingerbread

A History of New York by John Murray, 1821 with a view of the White House in Washington, DC

The Lay of the Last Minstrel, by Sir Walter Scott, with a painting of Kelso Bridge (Scotland), 1823

Qunti Horatii Flacii by Horace, printed in 1824, with the painting of the Castle of Angelo, Rome

The Rambler (vol. 1) by Samuel Johnson, printed in 1825 with a stagecoach scene of Wych Street, London

The Contributions of Q. Q, by Jane Taylor, 1840 with a painting of the Tower of London

(via Lombard Maps)

The Royal Kalendar, and Court and City Register, for England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Colonies, for the year 1849, with a painting of Stonehenge

The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, 1850, with the painting of the Lady of the Lake

(via Lombard Maps)

Lyrics of the Heart: With Other Poems, by Alaric Watts, 1851

(via AbeBooks)

The Works of the British Poets from 1856, with a painting of the Elephant Man

(via AbeBooks)

The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope with memoir, dissertation and explanatory notes, by the Rev. George Gilfillan, 1863, with the painting of Pope's Villa at Twickenham

View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages, by H. Hallam, 1869, with a painting of dancing medieval peasants

(via Lombard Maps)

Paradise Lost by John Milton, 1876 with a three-part painting. Left to right: Milton's House on York Street, Portrait of Milton and his burial place at St. Giles, Cripplegate

The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, 1883, with the painting of The Time Machine

That machine is weird-looking enough, but you can see some of the strangest ones here.

(via AbeBooks)

The Holy Bible with the painting of a scene of a barber's shop with monkeys in human form, printed in 1883

(via AbeBooks)

A history of the late siege of Gibraltar with some vessels and soldiers

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, with a double-side fore-edge painting showing the portrait of the author as a young and an old man with vignettes from The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist

Works of Hans Sachsen (Hans Sachsens Ausgewahlte Werke) with a painting of men working in a shop, animals and a tree, and a man playing on violin

Paintings of Martin Frost, who has produced over 3300 fore-edge and miniature paintings since 1970

(via Foredgefrost)

Some other examples of fore-edge paintings

Illustrator Stephen Bowers creates a painting on a copy of A Narrative of a Survey of the Inter-tropical and Western Coasts of Australia by Philip Parker King (originally produced in 1826)


The pictures came from Boston Public Library and Grand Valley State University, except when noted otherwise.