A fore-edge painting is a image (sometimes visible) painted on the edges of the pages of a book which is visible only when the leaves of the book are fanned and not when fully closed. When the book is fully closed, only the gilt edges appear.
The earliest visible fore-edge paintings that dates as far back as the 10th century were symbolic designs.
The first known example of a disappearing fore-edge painting (where the painting is not visible when the book is closed) dates from 1649.
The binder who originated the technique of secretive painting is unknown, although Samuel Mearne had employed more artists and binders who did this kind of painting.
The art of fore-edge painting under gold reached its pinnacle in England in the latter half of the 17th century. Around 1750, the fore-edge paintings changed from simply decorative to landscapes, portraits, obscene and religious scenes; earlier in monochrome and later in color. The chosen depiction related to the subject of the book, but in many cases it did not.
How it is done
Unlike the spine and covers of a bookbinding, the page edges are not usually decorated.
A fore-edge painting is where the page block is fanned and an image applied to the stepped surface. If the page edges are themselves gilded or marbled, this results in the image disappearing when the book is relaxed. When refanned, the painting magically re-appears.
Traditionally the fore-edge painting would be applied and then the gilt. But it is also possible to take a book that already has a gilt edge, and apply a fore-edge painting to it.
To create a fore-edge painting, the pages of the book are fanned out and then held in a vice.
Step 2: The watercolour painting is then applied, using water colours. Once the painting is dry, the book can be released from the vice.
Step 3: If this was all, you would still be able to see the fore-edge painting on the edge of the book even though it was flat, so to conceal it, the edge of the book is hidden either by using gilt, or sometimes marbled.
Now the fore-edge painting would be invisible, unless you fanned out the pages.
A single fore-edge painting includes a painting on only one side of the book page edges.
A double fore-edge painting has paintings on both sides of the fore-edges so that one painting is visible when the leaves are fanned one way, and the other is visible when the leaves are fanned the other way.
A triple fore-edge painting has, in addition to paintings on the edges, a third painting applied directly to the edges (in lieu of gilt or marbling).
Edge paintings on the top or bottom edges (panoramic fore-edge painting) are also seen occasionally.
The vanishing Fore-edge Painting has been a traditional English book art for centuries and is continued today by just a few artists, usually working on old, finely bound, pre-gilded books, but now is available on certain new books.
Contemporary experts in fore-edge artform include UK-based artists, Martin Frost and Clare Brooksbank.