September 6, 2013
Reading between the pages: the art of fore-edge painting
by Zeljka Marosevic
A librarian at the University of Iowa has shared pictures of a series of books that feature the lost art of fore-edge painting. Colleen Theisen showcased the edges of a 1837 set of nature books by Robert Mudie: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, which belong to the University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives.
When closed, the outer edges of the volumes look like any other book’s, but when the book is opened and the pages slightly fanned, they reveal a series of intricately painted scenes which correspond to each season. While the books were donated to the library by Charlotte Smith, the artist who created the fore-edge paintings remains unknown.
Fore-edge painting, according to Wikipedia, is thought to date back to the 10th century, but the first example of a painting which could disappear came in 1649; it was only in the 18th century that the paintings began to depict landscapes and portraits. Theisen told the Daily Mail, ‘In order to paint the edges the book has to be clamped in the fanned position to make a flat surface to paint on. When the clamp is released, the image disappears.’
The painted scenes are a testament to the beauty and art of old books; beyond the leather binding, beyond the gold gilt edges, are colourful detailed paintings awaiting discovery. What’s more, their existence encapsulates the special relationship between a reader and a physical book. Their presence suggests that this object will be repeatedly handled, so that all of its features need not be revealed straight away. But it also calls for care, its pages should only be gently fanned for the secret art to be revealed, indicating an intimate knowledge of the book being held.
Fore-edge paintings, how they work:
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.