Hidden fore-edge painting (as opposed to standard fore-edge painting) was developed in the 17th century as a novelty technique for book decoration. The beauty of this technique lies in the ‘trick’, in that the painting is hidden or secret unless you know to look. As the book stands on the shelf, and as you’d hold it normally, the painting is undetectable and usually looks like a gilded or marbled fore-edge. However, when the book pages are splayed by bending the text block, the hidden fore-edge painting is revealed. Sometimes, this content was relevant to the text, and other times it was simply an interesting or attractive scene. Typically, these paintings were landscapes, battles, religious scenes or figures, or heraldry. Occasionally, even erotic images were hidden in this way.
The method works because the painting actually lies on the face of the pages, rather than on the edges of the pages (so, technically, it’s not really a fore-edge painting at all!). The book block is bent, fanning the pages out, so that the pages are each offset from one another by just a fraction of a millimetre… such a thin part of each page is revealed by the other pages in the block. The block is clamped into place and the fanned surface is painted. In this way, the strip of painting on each page is barely noticeable when the book is opened and ready normally pages full-open, looking straight at the face of the page). When the book is closed, none of the page face is visible, so the painting is hidden too. The edges of the pages (forming the true fore-edge) are usually gilded or marbled to hide any sign of the presence of the edge painting. Without the additional disguise, a faint image of the painting can be detected because of the bleed of the paint to the edge of the page.
- Martin Frost still produces fore-edge paintings on find bindings (and they’re for sale)
- A 1947 film about fore-edge painting, including a double-sided painting.
- The Bosto Public Library has a site dedicated to foredge painting
- The Boston Public Library website also has a gallery of fore-edge paintings
- Foredge painting using more modern processes.
- A video demonstration of a double sided fore-edge painting.
- A long video with lots of information and painting displays from Philip Pirages.