Forgotten Book Art: The Example of Hidden Fore-Edge Painting

‘Book art’ has become something of a phenomenon, attracting writers and artists both amateur and professional. Kelly Murray’s ‘Paper Dress’ (made entirely of phone books) and Tom Phillips’s ‘A Humument’ may not seem to have much in common at first. However, both artists challenge our ideas about the ‘purpose’ of texts by radicalising their material appearance to suggest multiple functions, both artistic and traditionally ‘practical.’ They are participants in the ‘book art’ trend which, though often heralded as a modern movement, has a long and comparatively unexplored history.

Long before Tom Phillips was painting onto Victorian novels, the Victorians themselves (inspired by their Georgian predecessors) were doing just that, in a form of ‘book art’ which definitely merits reviving.

The elegant art known as ‘disappearing fore-edge painting’ was pioneered in the 18th century. It was the Georgian answer to the age old tradition of ‘fore-edge painting’ which had been around as long as the printing press itself and lives on in the (usually plainer) ‘edge painting’ of today.

book edgeAn example of modern ‘edge painting.’ Many companies offer ‘edge colouring’ as a service adding ink directly onto the pages of individual books.

The ‘fore-edge’ is the side of the book where the page-edges are visible and was commonly decorated in early bookmaking. But in the Georgian era, many artists took things one step further. Instead of painting directly onto the gilded fore-edge, they painted ‘underneath’ the gold, using a clamp to fan the pages before applying the watercolour only to the paper, leaving the gold spots blank. This way, when the book was closed on a shelf with the fore-edge facing outwards (as was the custom in the 18th century) the painting would be hidden between the golden edges, only becoming visible when the book was opened and the pages were ‘tented’ or fanned.

book edge 2Image credit: Laura HB

As you’d expect, while this technique was in its prime throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the objects it produced were highly desirable and often very expensive. And that’s not all it had in common with today’s book art. Just like the Tom Phillips’s technique of ‘painting out’ certain words in ‘A Humument’, hidden fore-edge painting allows the interactive material relationship between reader and text to evolve into something unique.

Theoretically, if a book was taken from a shelf, lain flat, and read from the first to the final page, the reader would have the impression of ‘building’ the image manually as they turned the pages. At what point would those odd strips of colour look like a painting? Perhaps you could embed a hidden message only visible for those who completed the book (or skipped to the end). The possibilities are endless, and I’m convinced that the current industry (particularly the children’s market) would benefit from a revival of this intricate art form. So, book artist? Any takers?

Sally Brooker


Categories: Art, Literature

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