Fore-Edge Paintings

“Oratory of a Pilgrim”, she read off the spine of one of the volumes.
Lucille almost grinned. “Sounds quite virtuous, doesn’t it?” She paused as if for dramatic effect. “Have you heard of a fore-edge illustration?”
Edith shook her head and Lucille took the book. “They are images hidden in the book’s fore edge, carefully dissimulated as a pattern until you bend the pages so…”
She bent the side of the book so that it curved, revealing a colourful painting of a Japanese couple in flagrante delicto – performing sexual acts upon each other.

Crimson Peak novelisation by Nancy Holder, p. 158.

fore-edge-painting

In his latest film, Guillermo del Toro introduces the viewer to one of bibliophilia’s best kept secrets – the fore-edge illustration. It is only fair to say, however, that while quite a few of the illustrations were certainly erotic, landscapes, cityscapes and classical allegories were also popular scenes.

Even now, fore-edge illustrations are extremely rare; to have had a library full of them would have been expensive to compile but glorious to behold. It’s not something one would usually find in a mass produced hardback, and certainly not in a paperback. This is because producing a fore-edge illustration is a laborious process. The pages have to be tilted at a certain angle and held at that angle in a vice for the illustration – usually a watercolour – to be completed and dried. Without ruining the book, obviously. Consequently, they are most often found in limited edition, rare hide-bound, gilt-embossed volumes that in themselves cost a small fortune.

The craftsmanship that went into many of these illustrations is worthy of any miniaturist; some of the paintings are extraordinarily detailed and very finely done. The fact that they were hidden from all but the knowing eye means that, sadly, many have almost certainly been lost. I can only consider this a tragedy.

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