News & Notes

Vanishing Louisiana Like You’ve Never Seen It

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with: ,

We hear a lot about “vanishing” Louisiana these days. Our coast, towns, and wildlife are at risk from hurricanes, oil spills, rising sea levels, and changes in land management, and elements of our state’s distinctive culture and history are gradually disappearing. Four books in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections reveal a little of what has been lost… but in a way that will surprise you!

At first glance, the volumes appear no different from many other old books. They have attractive leather covers. The edges are covered with gold leaf. Inside, we find neatly printed nineteenth-century poetry. But just beneath the surface, the books have an amazing secret in store: when the covers are opened and the pages fanned out, colorful images magically begin to appear from the edges of the books.

These are what are called fore-edge paintings (sometimes also referred to as “disappearing” or “vanishing” paintings). Although impressive, the concept is actually very simple. To make one, all you have to do is fan out the pages of a book with gilded edges, clamp them in a vice, and then paint an image using watercolors. A tiny sliver of the painting will end up on the extreme margins of each page. When you close the book, the gilded edges will hide the watercolor. Fan out the pages again and each segment will come back together, recreating your painting.

Gilded edges are used to conceal each "slice" of a fore-edge painting.

Gilded edges are used to conceal each “slice” of a fore-edge painting.

The four books shown here are extra special because they are double fore-edge paintings. This means that after viewing one painting, you can turn the book over and see another. (Each side of each page contains one painting.)

Although these books were printed in 1811, 1854, and 1855, the fore-edge paintings were put on much later. They are thought to have been done in the 1940s by an unknown English artist whom Jeff Weber, author of Annotated Dictionary of Fore-Edge Painting Artists & Binders (2010), refers to as the “American City View Painter.”

Sir Walter Scott’s The Vision of Don Roderick (1811) contains fore-edge paintings showing New Orleans in the mid nineteenth century and a crevasse in a levee along the Misssissippi River. In Thomas Moore’s Lallah Rookh (1818), we find views of a cotton shute and a cotton steamer being loaded. Another edition of Lallah Rookh¬†(1854) shows an Indian burial ground and a market garden on the Mississippi. Finally, the library’s copy of Thomas Moore’s Songs, Ballads, and Sacred Songs (1855) depicts the southwest pass of the Mississippi River delta and moss gatherers in a Louisiana swamp.

Artists and bookbinders have been decorating the edges of books since medieval times. The first vanishing fore-edge paintings were made in England in the late eighteenth century, and the art is still alive and well today. It is known to have been practiced in Louisiana by James Rolando (1909-1984), an Italian-born Salesian brother who came to New Orleans in 1933 and taught art and bookbinding at the Hope Haven orphanage and Archbishop Shaw High School. Special Collections owns a copy of one of his bindings (A Doctor at Calvary, Cohn Collection), but we have not yet been able to determine the whereabouts of any of his fore-edge paintings. If you know where to find one, please contact us at

Michael Taylor is Assistant Curator of Books and History Subject Librarian for the LSU Libraries

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Contact Special Collections

Public Services Desk: (225) 578-6544

Reference Desk: (225) 578-6568

Fax: (225) 578-9425


Reference via e-mail

RSS Feed
 RSS - Special Collections Posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 6 other subscribers

Special Collections Hours

Special Collections on Twitter: @whatintheHill

Special Collections on Facebook: LSUspecialcollections

  • Timeline Photos
    Please join us in welcoming Chelsea Arseneault to the Center! Chelsea is the new graduate assistant who will be continuing the work started last year by Wyatt Winnie for the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service Oral History Project.This assistantship is funded by the LSU AgCenter and LSU College of Agriculture and is part of the two-year collaborative effort with LSU Libraries to document LCES. Chelsea was raised in Louisiana and holds two degrees from LSU: a B.A. in Anthropology and an M.A. in Teaching, and is now enrolled in the LSU MLIS program. Chelsea could not be more excited to get back into the field and close to her anthropological roots. Already, as part of her initial research and training, Chelsea has helped select audio clips for the Smith-Lever Exhibit listening station, which will open later this month. And this past week, Chelsea (at right) accompanied Center staff to observe a student training workshop at McKinley High School here in Baton Rouge (more on that next week!)-- photo by Kyle Tanglao.

  • Egyptomania!
    Did you know you can travel from the delta of the Mississippi to the delta of the Nile... just by walking through the doors of Hill Memorial Library? That's what students in Professor Darius Spieth's History of Interior Design class did on Sept. 9...

  • Photos of LSU Libraries Special Collections
    #TBT This photograph from c. 1890 shows a civil engineering class. On the back wall of the classroom hangs a portrait of William Tecumseh Sherman, LSU's first president and professor of engineering. Civil engineering has a special place in LSU's history with the first engineering degree at LSU being awarded to a civil engineering graduate in 1869. Also, in 1969, the first African American to graduate from the College of Engineering received his bachelor's in civil engineering. During 1908, the university was reorganized into individual colleges. At that time, the College of Engineering was established with civil engineering being one of four departments within the new college. Expanding the department's offerings to include graduate studies, the master's degree program in civil engineering was initiated in 1932 and the doctoral degree program in 1970. Photo source: LSU Photograph Collection, RG #A5000, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.
You are protected by wp-dephorm: