There’s an art to books that even most book-lovers don’t know about.
Do you know those gold gilded edges found on many old books? In some cases these exist to hide something remarkable: a painting on the edge of the book, only viewable when you fan out the pages.
No one really knows why these exist, which adds to the mystery. Few readers have seen them much less heard of them, despite them being beautiful works of art.
Fore-edge paintings began to appear in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. But these were painted on the edges of the book, seen directly without fanning them out or hiding them behind a shiny gold paint. The hidden, fore-edge version formed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
As if the practice isn’t already impressive enough, there is such a thing as a double fore-edge. Outlines from the Figures and Compositions upon the Greek, Roman and Etruscan Vases of the Late Sir William Hamilton (a rambling title if I ever saw one) has two hidden fore-edge paintings, a difficult task to achieve. In either direction that you fan the pages, you will find a different image.
There’s even such a thing as a triple fore-edge. In this case, two of the paintings are hidden and one is painted directly on the edge for all to see.
How are these paintings created? It’s a process for a master watercolor artist with a very steady hand. The edges of the book must first be perfectly smooth. Then the book has to be fanned out and held in the correct position between boards while it’s painted. When it’s dry, the edge must be painted with a special mixture and applied with gold leaf.
Surprisingly, these paintings are still made today, primarily by an artist named Martin Frost. In 1980 Frost got a commission for a number of book paintings, and after that decided to do fore-edge paintings full-time. He has created over 3,000 fore-edge paintings since then, plus portrait miniatures.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to double-check any old books with gold on the edges from now on. Just to be sure.