Book of wonders

Hidden pictures reveal the lost art of fore-edge painting

By Alisson Clark

Some of the most breathtaking illustrations in the University of Florida libraries are invisible, until you know how to reveal them.

Pick up "England in Egypt," a volume from 1894, and look at the book's edges: They seem unremarkable until you fan the pages slightly, and two ancient Egyptian figures emerge as if by magic.

The technique is called fore-edge painting, where an artist creates a watercolor scene using the tiny slice of space on the edge of each page. Stacked together, the pages make a complete painting, but only when they’re held at an angle.

An 1824 Izaak Walton book pulls off this trick twice: When the pages are fanned toward the front, a man in a tricorner hat appears, fishing on a riverbank. Bend the pages toward the back cover, and the fisherman’s background changes from a busy town to a country church.

Then there’s “The Desert World,” a gilt-stamped red Morocco leather volume from 1869. When the book lies open, the fore-edges on one side reveal a city of domes and minarets, on the other, a scene of travelers on camels — all done on page edges little wider than a hair.

Sixteen books in UF’s Harold and Mary Jean Hanson Rare Book Collection have fore-edge paintings, a trend that peaked in the 19th century, when wealthy folks would embellish the volumes of their home libraries.

“After they bought the book, they’d get their favorite illustrator to add the fore-edge,” says Samuel Huang, UF’s rare-books curator.

The artist would create the illustration using a frame to hold the page edges at an angle while filling in the tiny details of the image. Today, fore-edge painting is something of a lost art, Huang says. One commercial artist in England still produces them. But the paintings live on in collections such as UF’s, as well as those in the University of Illinois Library and the Lilly Library at Indiana University. A few times a year, Huang welcomes scholars who come to Florida to study the collection. Anyone can come in to the library and request to see them, but on campus, the books are still something of a secret.

“Many students graduate after four years at UF and never know we have this in the library,” Huang says.