Autumn by Robert Mudie / Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa via This is Colossal
Fore edge paintings are paintings that are concealed on the fore edge of a book and are only revealed when the pages are held and fanned out in a certain way. The fore edge of a book is the edge of the book that is opposite the spine. Traditionally the edges of books with fore edge paintings are gilded with gold in order to hide the image when the pages are not fanned out. While most of these paintings are on the fore edge, they can also painted on the top and bottom edges of the books. In addition, reverse fore edge paintings can be created by flipping the book upside down and fanning the pages out in the opposite direction. Therefore, a single book could have up to 6 paintings hidden on the edges, or two for each edge.
In order to make a fore edge painting, the artist fans out the pages on the fore-edge of the book and clamps them in place. They then paint the image onto that surface, usually with watercolor paints. The artist uses a dry brush so that the pigments do not stain the edges of the pages. After the painting has dried, the artist un-clamps the book and un-fans the pages so that they are flush with the edges of each other. Then the top, bottom and fore edge of the book are gilded with gold so that traces of the painting cannot be seen unless the pages are fanned at the right angle (Bromer, "Fore Edge Painting: An Introduction").
Fore-edge painting began in mid-seventeenth century England, and its invention is attributed to Samuel Mearne. Mearne was appointed Bookbinder to the King for King Charles II in 1660 and was responsible for binding books for the royal library and Bibles and Books of Common Prayer for the Chapels Royal ("Six Centuries of Master Bookbinding).
However, the institution that created fore edge paintings most prolifically was The Edwards of Halifax Bindery during the 18th century. Wealthy patrons such as Queen Charlotte often commissioned portraits of themselves on their prayer books and bibles. Fore edge paintings also depicted religious scenes, landscapes and architectural images. Few painters signed their images, therefore it is difficult to trace individual artists that created these images. Furthermore, it is difficult to discern whether the painting was created at the same time that the book was made. Consquently, the market for books with fore edge paintings is flooded with forgeries because forgers will paint images on eighteenth century books in order to increase their value (The Edwards of Halifax Bindery).
It is hard to find contemporary examples of fore edge painting. Fine book binding is a niche within the larger field printmaking, which is niche within the larger field of art. But I believe that fore edge painting could have renewed conceptual value, as our interactions with books as tangible and precious objects becomes increasingly novel during the digital era.
Brommer, Anne C. "Fore Edge Painting: An Introduction." On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting. Boston Public LIbrary, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. http://foreedge.bpl.org/node/923
Marks, P. J. M. "THE EDWARDS OF HALIFAX BINDERY." The British Library Journal 24.2 (1998): 184-218. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. http://www.bl.uk/eblj/1998articles/pdf/article13.pdf
"Six Centuries of Master Bookbinding." Southern Methodist University. Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. http://www.smu.edu/Bridwell/SpecialCollectionsandArchives/Exhibitions/SixCenturiesofMasterBookBinding/17thCentury/Mearne-Binding