The earliest fore-edge paintings date as far back as the 10th century; these earliest paintings were symbolic designs. Early English fore-edge paintings, believed to date to the 14th century, presented heraldic designs in gold and other colors. The first known example of a disappearing fore-edge painting (a painting not visible when the book is closed) dates back to 1649, while the earliest signed and dated fore-edge painting dates to 1653: a family coat of arms painted on a 1651 Bible.
A legend regarding how hidden fore-edge painting on books first began states that a duchess and friend of Charles II of England would often borrow his books, sometimes forgetting to return them. As a result, the king commissioned the court painter, Sir Peter Lely, and the court bookbinder, Samuel Mearne, to devise a secret method to identify his books. They worked out a plan to paint a hidden image on the edges. When the king visited the duchess, he spotted a familiar-looking book on a shelf. As he was leaving, he took the book from the shelf to reclaim. The duchess protested, but the king fanned out the pages of the book to reveal the royal coat of arms.
Around 1750, the subject matter of fore-edge paintings changed from simply decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes, portraits, and religious scenes usually painted in full color. Modern fore-edge painted scenes have many more variations as they can depict numerous subjects not found on earlier specimens. These include erotic scenes, or they might involve scenes from novels (like Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes or Dickens, etc.). In many cases, the chosen scene will depict a subject related to the book, but in other cases, it did not. In one instance, the same New Brunswick landscape was applied to both a Bible and a collection of poetry and plays. The artist, bookseller, or owner decides on the scene; thus, the variety is wide.
The technique was popularized in the 18th century by John Brindley (1732 - 1756), publisher, and bookbinder to the prince of Wales. and Edwards of Halifax, a distinguished family of bookbinders and booksellers.
The majority of extant examples of fore-edge painting date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries on reproductions of books originally published in the early 19th century.