Books can be magical things, but some as it turns out, may be more magical than others. They might look like ordinary old books, but they’re hiding a curious little secret in plain sight. A fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book; invisible when closed. The technique was employed by high end bookmakers throughout history, and in many cases, the hidden artworks went undiscovered for decades or even centuries after their creation. Some may still be hiding amongst the bookshelves of your favourite vintage bookstore…
Unless you fan the pages, you won’t even know it’s there at all. The art form is more likely to be found on leather bound books with gilded, or better yet, marbled pages, which do a better job of hiding the secret painting entirely. This truly rare and dwindling practice (and no, we’re not talking about the doodles on the pages of your middle school textbooks) is something that’s nearly impossible to mass produce by a printer, which makes it even more enchanting to consider how much work went into something that almost no one would ever know was there.
Allegedly, it was Charles II of England who started the practice in the 1600s when a dishonest duchess of his court began borrowing his books and “forgetting” to return them. The king commissioned a court painter and together, they devised a secret plan for identifying the books in his collection. According to The Ancient Art of Fore-Edge Painting published in 1969, Charles was visiting the duchess one day when spotted one of his unreturned books on her shelves….
Taking it down he said, “I’ll just take my book along with me.”
“But sire,” the lady protested, “that book is mine.”
“Oh?” The king raised his brows. Then, with a sly smile, he fanned out the book and revealed what had been painted on the inner edges–the royal coat of arms. The gilding on the outer edges had completely hidden the identification. Acknowledging that Charles had outwitted her, the duchess sank in a deep curtsy before her king.The Ancient Art of FORE-EDGE PAINTING, Vera E. Dutter
The technique became most popular in 18th century England thanks to a publisher and bookbinder to the prince of Wales. This brings us to say that you’ll be needing to look at some rather precious books to find a fore-edge painting. A lot of collectors and bibliophiles generally disapprove of the practice because in order to see these hidden works, it requires the text to be handled in a way that would give most antiquarian book dealers heart palpitations. If you’re not very careful, you can do some damage to the spine or tear the pastedowns on the front or back cover of a book. Bear this in mind when you go looking through second-hand bookstores.
Martin Frost is thought to be one of the only commercial fore-edge painters in the world, who learned the art from a friend over 50 years ago. Antique examples found on eBay or Etsy can range anywhere between $300 to over $1000 – that is if the book dealer even found the book’s secret.
And some of these rare books are even more elaborate and precious than others, with not one but secret paintings hiding in the edges. These are known as two-way double fore edge paintings, where the pages can be fanned in both directions to reveal two different artworks, depending on which direction you fan it.
Thicker books may hide another variant called “split double paintings”, where if the book is opened, two separate paintings will appear.
There’s also “all edge paintings”, where the the book is twisted to reveal scenes on the top and bottom page edges of the book. Again, enough to give any book collector heart palpitations.
So before we go searching old books for the location of the Knights Templar gold – (because if it wasn’t secretly planted inside a fore-edge painting of an ancient text, where else would it be?) – just remember that books are precious and fragile objects to be treated with the upmost respect.
Now then where were we? Ah yes …. race you to the rare books section!