You’ll Never Look at Books the Same Way Again

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.

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

Trojans Arch, Ancona, Tasso in Prison and the Bridge of Sighs, painted on Jerusalem Delivered. (via Wikimedia user Dorieo, CC)

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.

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

The Tower of London, painted on an edition of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (via the Boston Public Library)

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.

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, painted on an accounting book (via Boston Public Library)

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.

Photos from the Attic

Old photographs have a special kind of charm all their own, and we think they deserve to be brought out and shown to the world with a new series of blog posts.

Here we have a pile of photographs, each with a uniqueness that draws in the eye. What each of them has in common is their success in engaging us, in captivating our attention and drawing us in.

Two sailors look out on a foggy day, anticipating a long day ahead of them.

Two sailors look out on a foggy day, anticipating a long day ahead of them.

The fog that happened to be present at the time that this photograph was taken, for example, is precisely what grabs my eye and unleashes a whirl of mystery. This photograph is not about the subject in the forefront of the shot but is about the ghostly ship which, given its unassuming presence in the background, invites curiosity.

“Queenie Martin 1945″: Queenie knew she lived up to her name, and declared the lawn chair her throne.

“Queenie Martin 1945″: Queenie knew she lived up to her name, and declared the lawn chair her throne.

And the interesting line quality with the picture of the dog is enough to make me pause. The dog’s head is aligned with the edge of the deck. For the dog’s head to be perfectly flat with the deck makes the photograph visually appealing. Was this in the photographer’s mind when they took the picture? Or was it simply a serendipitous encounter?

Marcy knew that this moment alone was the only chance she had at eating her sister's birthday cake, and by golly, she was going to take it.

Marcy knew that this moment alone was the only chance she had at eating her sister’s birthday cake, and by golly, she was going to take it.

A question while rummaging through the boxes of photographs that we have acquired over the course of the years has suggested to me that each photograph is its own miniature piece of art. And yet, the photos are unsigned and anonymous; they’re pieces of art for their own sake.

"Those boys are going to get into trouble someday," Delilah said to herself as she watched her two kids play out the entirety of WWII using only sand castles and rubber ducks.

“Those boys are going to get into trouble someday,” Delilah said to herself as she watched her two kids play out the entirety of WWII using only sand castles and rubber ducks.

When Marcel Duchamp famously found a urinal, named it “Fountain” and signed it “R. Mutt” in 1917, he changed the face of art forever as we know it today. Art could be anything that someone claimed to be art. In his case, a found object, the urinal, became art.

While we are not going to sign any of the photographs or take any other avenue to claim them as our own artistic creation, we have found these photos in our supply and would like to appreciate them for the art that they are.

As we release these photographs back into the world, we do so with a profound appreciation of the curiosity that they incite in us.

Join us as we step back in time and take a look at old photographs, the hidden history behind them and what we imagine they’re telling us.