There was a time when the hunt for a rare book, or even just an out of print book, was a major undertaking - you could either travel the country scouring multiple used bookstores yourself or pay a commission to a book dealer who would put feelers out through
his local network and, if necessary, to the wider world of book dealers through a classified ad in a trade magazine. However, with the advent of the internet and search engines such as AddAll, most of us have been able to cut out the middle-man and, with a few clicks of the mouse, track down that old childhood favorite without ever leaving the house.
But there is at least one area of book collecting that still benefits from the hands on touch - where the thrill of the chase is discovering the hidden secret of an apparently run of the mill book - and that is the search for fore-edge paintings.
To create a fore-edge painting, the pages of a book are fanned out and held in a vice. A painting is then applied usually with water color. When the paint is dry the book is released from the clamp so the book is flat again, and the edges of the book are then either gilted or marbled to completely hide any evidence of the painting from casual eyes. I was introduced to fore-edge painting while visiting a friend's father on New York's Upper East Side a few months back where, even though the book's secret was known to me, I still felt a sense of discovery in fanning the pages to find the hidden painting.
(The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library have been kind enough to put together a 2 minute video of some of the fore-edge books in their collection.)
As Jeff Weber explains in A Collector's Primer to the Wonders of Fore-Edge Painting, the art of fore-edge painting has been around for a long time. There are examples of books from medieval times with fore-edge paintings, but the art form came into its own in the mid-seventeenth century when English binders developed their own forms with highly decorative motifs, including flowers, butterflies, royal portraits and, inevitably, more than a few pictures of a lewd nature - some of which Martin Frost has been kind enough to display in the "Gentlemen's Relish" section of his extremely comprehensive website devoted to all things fore-edge.
The twentieth-century has seen the development of more advanced fore-edge techniques including the double fore-edge painting, and the rather over the top six-way painting where all three sides of the book have a double (which not only seems a tad gratuitous but also doesn't sound to be all that good for the book as I've yet to meet a book that likes to be fanned on its top and bottom edges!)
(This brief video shows a very elaborate and moderately rude painting on two sides of a book)
So, where might you find a previously undiscovered fore-edge painting? The chances are low that you'll find one in an antiquarian bookstore because any dealer worth his or her salt will know to look out for them - but what about that dusty row of books on your top shelf that were handed down to you from Great Uncle Charles? Who knows what they might reveal! But, don't expect to find hidden treasure too easily - just like the golden invitations inside the Wonka chocolate bars - fore-edge books are few and far between and you'll have to open up a lot before you find one by chance.
If you've searched all your old books and found nothing but dust and cobwebs, and aren't content with looking at other people's collections (such as the extraordinary collection of more than 200 books in The Boston Public Library), you may wish to start your own - and there's no better place to start than at Martin Frost's website: foredgefrost.co.uk.
I asked Martin about the cost of buying a fore-edge painting, to which he replied that a poorly painted book in indifferent condition could be bought for as little as US$100, but that it would not a good investment, and most collectors who start with such a book end up replacing it before long. He went on to say that "accomplished paintings on reasonable books can be found at around $400, two-way doubles and all-edge paintings attracting much high figures, for example a splendid two-way double all-edge painting is currently available at foredgefrost at just under $3000."
The problem about buying an existing fore-edge painted book is that the chances are slim that you'll find a picture you like on a book that you appreciate. This would be an especially important consideration if you're thinking of giving the book as a gift (perhaps for a golden wedding anniversary or an important birthday) because it would be preferable if both the book and the painting had special meaning for the recipient. The solution is to commission a painting on the book of your choice. Martin is one of a handful of knowledgeable fore-edge painters working today. Since 1970, he has created well over 3000 fore-edge and miniature paintings for the book trade. He says that painting and gilding a book starts at about US$600, or about $800 if the client wishes the book to be rebound in presentation leather. If you know the title of the book you want but don't know how where to acquire a good quality copy suitable for painting, Martin can advise on that as well.
Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse editor
Aug 2009 Update: Martin has just released a new list of Fore-edge Painted books that he has been working on for the last year. They can be found at his website: www.foredgefrost.co.uk - click the "Click Here" button on his homepage to download the list.