Now you see it, now you don’t!

Books are inconspicuous – readily available objects that we see daily, and that line the shelves of our homes and offices. Items that some of us treasure, or collect in great numbers. This, of course, makes a book the perfect place to hide secrets. We see this time and again, with a concealed gun featuring in Bond movie From Russia with Love, a book being used to smuggle a rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption, and the ever-classic trick of pulling a book from a shelf to reveal a hidden door or passage.

Secret bookcase door

A standard in any good library – the secret bookcase door!

But what if your book held an even more inconspicuous secret, that you haven’t yet unlocked? Like a disappearing painting…

This is known as the art of ‘fore-edge painting’; the term ‘fore-edge’ coming from the fact that books used to be shelved the other way around – with the spine facing the back (often chained to the shelves) and the edge of the pages facing to the fore.

It is only when the pages of the books are fanned out in the correct way that such paintings appear. In order to create this effect, the painter would clamp the pages, while fanned out at an angle, between two pieces of wood. This would give them a surface made up of less than one millimetre of each page, which together would form their canvas. Often a meticulous painting process, comprising intricate detail using watercolour, these rather small paintings could take hours to complete. Once dry, the pages would then be released from the clamp to return to their usual form side by side. The fore-edges were then covered in gilt (golden paint) and allowed to dry. When the pages are fanned the gilt will disappear, and the painting will be revealed. Equally, when the pages settle back together, the gilt conceals the image once again. It is even possible to conceal two secret paintings within the same book, by fanning the pages in opposite directions.

Fore-edge gilt painting

Fore-edges covered in gilt (golden paint).

Most great secrets are shrouded in myth, and fore-edge painting is no exception. As the story goes, Charles II had a friend with a penchant for borrowing his books and later claiming that they were in fact her own. To combat this, he conspired with the royal bookbinder, Samuel Mearne, to conceal his coat of arms on the fore-edge of his books. When his friend would then proclaim them as her own, he would catch her out in the lie by fanning out the book to real his own heraldic crest. Over one hundred years after the reign of Charles II, there was a revival of the art which then became increasingly detailed and picturesque thanks to the work of an English bindery, Edwards of Halifax.

In UCD Special Collections, four landscape paintings are hidden by the gilt of a series of four books. The landscapes feature various castles in Scotland and England. All four books are in matching green morocco bindings, and are a series of the poetical works of James Montgomery. The paintings do not appear to have any link to the text, and it is therefore most likely that the owner of the books commissioned them out of personal interest.

Fore-edge paintings

The top fore-edge painting is of Carrick Castle, Argyle & Bute (41.R.25) and the bottom fore-edge painting is of Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland (41.R.27).

Our seascape of Carrick Castle in Argyle & Bute is rather unusually framed by the painter. It appears to be an homage to another fore-edge painting which we can trace back to a book published ten years previously, in 1815, which is now held in Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Department. It is most likely that these books once existed in the same place, at the same time, though they may not necessarily have had the same painter. Due to the inclusion of the frame, the painter of our copy does not include the smaller details, omitting things like the people standing on a rock, and some of the seagulls present in the Boston copy.

Fore-edge paintings

The top fore-edge painting is of Ravenscraig Castle, Kirkaldy, Fife (41.R.26) and the bottom is of Bothal Castle, Northumberland (41.R.25).

Unfortunately, fore-edge paintings can rarely be attributed to their painters as most did not leave any defining mark on their works. The subject of the paintings were picked by a range of people – the binder, publisher, painter or often the book’s owner would commission something specific. Mostly, the content mirrors the trends in painting at the time: landscapes, seascapes, or grand houses.

If you would like to add fore-edge paintings to your own book collection, you could try it yourself – or consider commissioning the world’s last known commercial fore-edge painter, Martin Frost. Now, please excuse us while we continue to open every gilt book on our shelves…

  • This post was researched and written by Laura Ryan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections and National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading

Bennett, Jeanne. Hidden Treasures: The History and Technique of Fore-edge Painting. New York: Calliope Press, 2012.

Weber, Carl Jefferson. Fore-edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Harvey House, 1966.

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