Fore-Edge Painting: An Age-Old Technique for Beautifying Books | by Melissa Gouty | Jul 2022

Rare works of art

Front edge painting on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Lord Byron, 1812-1818). Photo: Wikipedia

JJdo you think you know a lot about books? Me too. I have been a book lover all my life, coming from a family of readers and bibliophiles. We went to the library for Saturday outings, and a trip to a bookstore was a source of unbridled joy. (I still do.) But being an avid reader doesn’t mean I’m well versed in the age-old art of bookmaking.

I had never seen or heard of “avant-garde painting” until a recent trip to Indiana University’s Lilly Library. (The “front edge” is the long side of the book farthest from the spine.) The exhibit was titled, “The Eye, Mind, and Imagination, Part II” and it was a look in the passion of book collectors and their specialized interests: miniature books. Fancy bindings commissioned by an artist. Children’s books. Illustrated medical books.

A few steps into the exhibition and I saw my first “painted on the leading edge” books. I was amazed to find a kind of beauty in the book that you could see without reading the words.

How could I not know about this technique of painting the edges of pages to create stunning art? In addition to intriguing plots, quirky characters, and masterful prose, books can even display beautiful paintings. Wow.

Title location

Books weren’t always produced with the same look as we know them today. In the 10th century, book titles were written or printed (heat impressed) on the front edge of the book, not the spine. Books were placed horizontally on shelves with their pages facing out so that their titles could be read. It wasn’t until the 16th century, six hundred years later, that titles began to be embossed on spines and books stored vertically.

Ownership

Once printers and book binders started putting titles on the spine, the first edge was free. Often the name of the book owner or the family crest was painted on the front edge as a means of identification. Books, after all, were precious possessions.

Art

In the 1500s, an Italian painter and printmaker, Cesare Vecellio, began to imagine a different and prettier way of identifying books. Instead of using the leading edge for the title or owner’s name, Vecellio envisioned painting a distinctive piece of art there using the edges of the page as a blank canvas. When the book was closed, Vecellio’s miniature masterpiece could be seen.

The distinctive scene painted there would be a unique way of identifying the volume.

Fast forward one hundred years to the 1600s. Vecellio’s brainchild of painting an image that could be seen on the edge of a book was good, but not good enough for Samuel Mearne.

Samuel Mearne has an interesting, if nefarious, story. He was known as one of England’s great bookbinders before the industrial revolution. He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, a group that confiscated and penalized any printer or bookbinder who published literature that went against current political dictates on religion.

Mearne and his cronies shut down any unlicensed publisher on the grounds that these contrarian printers were producing literature in direct opposition to the king, creating dissension and stirring up controversy among the people.

Samuel Mearne acted to the letter of the law and shut down dissenting publishers. But he took an unethical and criminal approach by stealing the books and pamphlets from closed businesses and then selling them overseas to make huge profits for himself.

However, in addition to being a bit of a scoundrel, Samuel Mearne was a talented artist. He took Vecellio’s book painting idea and made it even more interesting. Instead of painting on the flat edge of the pages when the book was closed, Mearne fanned the pages slightly and put the paint on the inside edges. The image became a “disappearing” or “disappearing” foreground painting that you couldn’t see unless you fanned the pages.

Mearne popularized leading edge painting that disappears on the inside edge of the page. In addition, gilding, another decorative element, was added. This gilding, which was a thin layer of gold added to the outer edges, embellished a book, protected the edges of the page from tearing, and concealed hidden artwork.

Avant-garde painting rose in popularity from Vecellio’s time in the 1500s and reached its peak in the early 1800s. flourishing even in Asia for a short time when an American educator teaching in Beijing brought it to China in 1936. Painting the edges of books took hold, and many volumes were painted, many with biblical scenes. The onset of World War II, however, halted the export of advanced painted books from China to America.

Unfortunately, avant-garde paintings are rarely signed and little is known about the artists who created them. They are considered rare, and most known examples of avant-garde paintings are held in special collections in museums and libraries around the world.

Today there is a known advanced professional painter. His name is Martin Frost. He lives in the UK and has been practicing his art for four decades.

Painted book on the front edge of an exhibit at Lilly Library, Indiana University. Photo: Melissa Gouty

As of now, I’m looking for discarded books that may have avant-garde paint. I scan the shelves of second-hand bookstores, rummage through bins of torn and tattered books at garage sales, and fan thousands of pages in the hope of uncovering a vanishing treasure.


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