In a recent post here, Janie mentioned fore-edge paintings, something I’ve wanted to blog about for a long time! It's easier to show how fore-edge paintings work than write/talk about them, so I've included some very-short videos (with no audio) below.
If you are holding a book in your hand, then the fore-edge is the long edge of the pages that you can turn or fan out. Fore-edge painting refers to any painted decoration of this fore-edge. Some are visible when the book is closed, but most are only visible when the pages are slightly fanned. The painting is further hidden when the book is closed by applying gilt (gold-leaf) or marbling to the edge. The most common type is a single fore-edged painting:
There are also split and panoramic fore-edge paintings. Split fore-edge paintings can be done on thick books, where each half of the book’s fore-edge has a different illustration (here’s an example). Panoramic fore-edge paintings occur not only on the book’s main fore-edge, but on the fanned-out top and/or bottom edges of the book as well, giving a near-270-degree panoramic view:
The most rare type are double fore-edge paintings, which show one image when the fore-edge is fanned out the usual way, and a completely different picture when the pages are fanned out in the opposite direction:
There are even triple fore-edge paintings, where the edge is not gilded or marbled and instead has an illustration visible when the book is closed. As far as I know, there are no fore-edge paintings on any books in the Dick Smith Library. However, I will be checking books with gilt or marbled edges in our Special Collections just to make sure!
Fore-edge paintings date back to the 10th century and were a popular art form in the 18th and 19th centuries. The detail on these miniature paintings is incredible! There are some great examples in the Boston Public Library Flickr set. For more information, check out these Delicious links.