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 8 other subscribers

Special Collections Hours

Special Collections on Twitter: @whatintheHill

Special Collections on Facebook: LSUspecialcollections

  • Timeline Photos
    Dr. Helen Regis and the Center's director, Jennifer Cramer, are co-teaching "Doing Oral History" Anth 4909 this Spring 2015. The class explores theory and methods of oral history and life history research, with special emphasis on its importance for the study of social movements, cultural and social history, race/racism, folklore, and feminist theory and ethnography. Doing Oral History is open to advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students who wish to learn the theory and practice of oral history. This class is a research-based service-learning class offered in partnership with the Jazz & Heritage Foundation.
  • #TBT Our campus, c. 1939. How many buildings can you name? Hint: Many of these structures were named for legendary faculty members and administrators whose work is featured on our current agricultural history exhibition, "Cooperative Extension at LSU: Commemorating the Centennial of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914." Many of the same people are featured in our companion exhibit, "The Greater University," documenting LSU's move to its current location. .

  • It's History Day! The History Graduate Student Association, Special Collections, and others have put together a fun and informative day planned, including an opportunity late in the afternoon to look at some rare materials in our McIlhenny Room! Stop by anytime from 12-4 today!

    There will be be lunch and opportunities to talk informally with undergrads who are majoring or minoring in history, social studies ed. majors, and anyone interested in history. There will also be a schedule of short presentations from Study Abroad, Hill, the Law School, etc. Please consider stopping by, even if only for part of the event. Also, if you're teaching a class or if you are a TA or SI, try to get the word out to your students.
You are protected by wp-dephorm: