The revolutionary invention of the printing with movable types, made in Europe in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg but already in use in China since 4 centuries, led the productions of volumes at unthinkable numbers for the scribes, pushing the publishing company to bind products which were all the same with high quality techniques.

Even before the print, it was invented the fore-edge painting technique, but only with the arrival of the assembly production that it became a trend. The origin of painting on the edges of books dates back to Middle Ages, perhaps from England around the year 1000.A great representative of such a technique was Cesare Vecellio, son of Ettore and cousin of Tiziano, a Venetian artist from the 16th century that painted a numerous series of volumes: 17 of them went into a millionaire auction some years ago.

Below: painting representing the Tower of London, 1820 – 1840. Public Domain

Some decades after the works of Sir Vecellio, the fore-edge painting was hidden until the book would have been fanned, and in Great Britain this technique spread enormously. Probably it was the British reviewer, Samuel Mearne to introduce the idea of disappearing painting and, during the 18th and along the whole 19th century, the fanned- fore-edge painting became massively trendy in England.

The first fore-edge paintings were representing stylised drawings, heraldic symbols in gold and other tones. The first known example of such works, one of the “close edges” type, dates back to 1649. The first signed and dated painting on the front comes from 1653: a family coat of arms painted on a bible printed in 1651.

Below: Jerusalem Delivered by John Hoolee. London 1797. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Around the year 1750 the theme of the paintings changed and went from simple decorative or heraldic drawings to landscapes, portraits and religious scenes, generally made with colours. The scenes could respect the theme of the book itself but even landscapes of genres completely different from the context. For example, a landscape of  New Brunswick was depicted both on a bible and on a collection of poetries and theatrical plays.

The legend on the birth of the fanned fore-edge painting

Like many other ancient inventions, even the fanned fore-edge painting has its own legend.

Charles II of England (1630-1685) had a friend, a duchess, who often was borrowing his books, sometimes by forgetting to return them. According to the story, the King ordered to the court painter, Sir Peter Lely, and the court book reviewer Samuel Mearne, to come up with a secret method in which book could be identified.

The two men made up a unique technique never seen before

Some weeks later, when the king was visiting the duchess, he saw a book with a familiar look on a shelf. He grabbed it and said ” I will just simply take my book”. “But Sire”, the woman replied, “that’s my book”. At that point the King , with a naughty smile, he fanned the book and revealed  what his men had painted inside of it:

The Royal Arms

The golden pages on the outer edges had completely covered up the Arms, and the duchess quickly shut herself up with shame.

If we remove the legends from this ancient technique, today this represent an art almost completely forgotten. It is carried on by an English artist, Martin Frost, who turned his passion into a real job, and that obtains commissions from all over the world. Frost was the subject of a brief documentary where he shows the ways with which he creates his work, visible underneath:

The artist explains that the techniques to realise this work are several, and they can become extremely complex. Through the pages it is possible to hide one, two, three or even more paintings, depending on the requests of the client. The mass consumption which involves books too does not leave any more weight to the aesthetic of it as it was common in the past, but the vintage charm of these volumes has remained unchanged through the centuries.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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