Have you ever seen a fore-edged book? Generally I feel that a book is a wonderfully complete object in itself, needing no decoration but an attractive cover. However, fore-edged books do transform books into unusual works of art, in the painterly sense of the word, as well as in the literary sense.
It involves someone painting an image – a landscape scene, portrait of the author or a character, or something from the book itself – onto the ‘stepped’ page edges. When the book sits flat, you cannot see the picture, but when you fan out the edges of the pages, the picture becomes visible. The book has to be held in a clamp with the pages fanned for the artist to be able to do his or her work. In Britain there are currently only two specialists of this particular technique, so it could be a dying art. At the University of Cape Town Library I was once privileged to see a very rare double-fore-edged book – splay the edges one way and you see a scene, splay them the other way and you get a totally different image. It was remarkable. Or you can get paintings that are wrapped around all the edges – this is known as panoramic fore-edge painting.
The earliest examples of this work date back to the 10th C with heraldic designs put onto books, but in the 18th C the pictures changed to landscapes and portraits, or even erotic pictures. A library in American has 709 books with fore-edged paintings, and you can see many examples on line if you are interested.
Here is a video showing how both of the images appear on a Book of Common Prayer at Francis Marion University, SC, USA:
What do you think of such decorating of books? Let me know and comment here.
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