The Boston Globe Ideas section has a brief article today, Secrets of the fore-edge in the Brainiac feature in print (p. K8, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013), and the Ideas Blog online. Kevin Hartnett reports on a lovely discovery at the University of Iowa where a student discovered four books by 19th-century Scottish science writer Robert Mudie. Fore-edge paintings are invisible when books sit closed, or open entirely. But when they are fanned slightly, a painting appears on the page edges.
The library at University of Iowa has posted GIF animations of the pages being fanned open here, along with more information and another photo of one of the books. The Mudie books are about the changing seasons, and the illustrations are the four seasons. The Globe photo appears to show spring or summer, with blossoms. And the Iowa website shows autumn.
The Boston Public Library has a web page dedicated to images of their outstanding collection of fore-edge paintings. This first is a (loooong!!) series of thumbnail images of the paintings. What is best about the BPL site is the articles about Fore-edge painting here. From the article, Fore-edge Painting - An Introduction, by Anne C. Bromer:
[In the 17th Century,] Samuel Mearne, a bookbinder to the royal family, developed the art of the “disappearing painting” on the fore-edge of a book.
“Imagine a flight of stairs, each step representing a leaf of the book. On the tread would be the painting and on the flat surface would be gold. A book painted and gilt in this way must be furled back before the picture can be seen.” (Kenneth Hobson, 1949)
The Globe article includes a link to a special provider of "presses" to display such books. Such presses must also be used to create the paintings, holding the pages in place while the artist paints the image and it dries. This webpage shows several examples of fore-edge art, and has more links to explain fore-edge paintings, including more examples. Be sure to link to the Boston Public Library link "What is a Fore-edge Painting?" to see some beautiful video clips of books from their collection being fanned. One of these clips is used without attribution on the press website, but the BPL link has two more examples, and the books are just amazing.
The image decorating this blog post is a fore-edge painting from the Boston Public Library collection, an image of the White House which decorates A History of New York by Washington Irving. What an interesting thought process that led to White House in Washington, D.C. as a decoration for this book!