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Monday, 15 February 2016 | By Gerry Mulvaney


By Gerry Mulvaney, European Sales Manager, Landa Digital Printing

According to Elsevier’s Dictionary of the Printing and Allied Industries, the fore-edge of a book is the blank space occupied by the outer margin of a page, opposite the folds in the section and I suppose you might think it’s not much use or interest to most people.

To our eighteenth century letterpress cousins it was a space that could be used to magically conceal a surprise for the reader. In a technique described as “fore-edge painting”, a number of the craft bookbinders of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century displayed a unique talent for hiding complete paintings in the fore-edge margin, totally invisible when looking directly at the gilding on the edge of the page, but wondrously revealed in all its glory if the pages are fanned out. Usually these were paintings of religious or landscape scenes, but occasionally even erotica found its way onto the pages.

Fore-edge painting entitled Autumn

Fore-edge painting discovered at the Iowa State University

This technique may have been forgotten by most people, but recently the Special Collections Librarian at Iowa State University, Colleen Theisen, discovered an example on a scientific book published in the early nineteenth century that was donated to her University Library collection.

The weighty tome entitled “Autumn” was one of a series of four studies of the seasons by Robert Mudie, a self-taught nineteenth century Scottish journalist and science writer.

Theisen had found the illustration of an autumn scene in the fore-edge margin and published a GIF of the painting. Encouraged by her find, she recovered the other three books in the series and there in the fore-edge margin was a painting of the title, cleverly hidden in the gilding by the aforesaid technique.

You can see the GIFs from Iowa State University on the website of My Modern Met. I discovered some more beautiful examples of the art form in the collections of John Hopkins University Baltimore.

The Digital Era Has Not Dampened the Demand for Beautiful Fore-Edge Paintings

The technique, used by bookbinders and gilders to decorate fore-edge margin, is expertly described by Frank Hippman in an article in 1993 on the website of J. Hewit, one of the bookbinding trade’s leather suppliers.

Essentially the book is fanned out and held in a simple hand press, before the pages are lightly sanded and then treated with starch to create a base for the painting to be applied. Thin paper is preferable and the painting is usually done with watercolours before it is sealed and the book finally gilded. It sounds a laborious process and it almost certainly was done for a small number of privileged and wealthy customers.

If you want to acquire your own fore-edge painting, there are many really cool examples for sale on eBay, but even today you will generally need fairly deep pockets, such is their cachet. I am sure there must be some other examples of whimsical production methods in the printing industry, but fore-edge painting must be one of the most cool and aesthetically pleasing craft techniques to span the centuries and still be in demand in today’s smartphone era.

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