Hidden within the pages . . .

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old booksRecently, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to a fabulous collection of antique books. The books were wonderful in and of themselves, but what made them truly spectacular was the art hidden within the pages. Not illustrations inside the text, but hidden paintings secreted in the fan of page edges.

The art is called fore-edge painting. When the book is closed the art is invisible. It can only be seen when the pages are fanned. While painted edges of books dates as far back as the 10th century for simple symbolic designs, the art of fore-edge painting with disappearing paintings can be traced back to a family’s coat of arms signed and dated in 1653 on a Bible printed in 1651. Edwards of Halifax, and English bindery, advanced the art with many finely executed landscapes and depictions of ancestral homes which were attractive to the British elite. 

Often the artist would paint a picture that matched the text. For example, these double fore-edge paintings (double meaning one picture shows when you fan the pages one way and another appears when you fan the pages in the opposite direction) of the Garden of Eden and the Last Supper were found on a Bible printed in 1803.

Eden Fore Edge Painting

Last Supper Fore Edge


Here are a couple You Tube videos that show how the artwork is hidden.

This one shows a seafaring scene:


This one shows a doule fore-edge painting:


This art form continues today, especially in England, where artists like Martin Frost, help to revitalize the antique book trade by taking lovely old books with gilt edges that constomers have no interest in because of the dry subject matter, and increase their aesthetic appeal by adding fore-edge paintings.

If you could paint a scene from one of your favorite classics, which classic would you select and what scene would you choose to paint?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

20 thoughts on “Hidden within the pages . . .”

  1. Oh wow, I had no clue that existed! What a fun thing to find or search for. I wouldn’t know what to pick for classic book. 🙂 too many good ones to choose from.

  2. Hi, Susan. I was in awe when I first saw it as well. I love that the artwork is hidden until you fan the pages. I have tons of ideas of scenes to paint for classic books, but I have no talent for painting whatsoever, so any artwork I created would be stick figures. Not quite the elegance I was looking for.

  3. Karen, how fascinating! I haven’t heard of this practice, but WOW. Hmmm…my mind is heading onto the “what-if” rabbit trail. My current heroine secretly paints miniature portraits, but…maybe…she could…

    Oh, the possibilities!!! 😉

  4. Karen, I have never seen nor heard of such a thing before. It’s fascinating.
    I want to know more. I think we’ve lost some of the beauty of books. When I see the old intricate art of lovely lettering and covers … well, I know no one can afford to do that anymore, but it would be nice if we had a bit more time for beauty. So often what passes for art these days is pretty lame.

  5. I couldn’t agree more, Mary. Those old texts with the leather bindings and gold leaf pages, with the hand painted illustrations – like the fairy tale books with the elaborate scripting – they just inspire reverance, don’t they? I, too, wish we could create something as timeless and beautiful as those old books. Of course, no one but the most wealthy were able to afford them, so we’d quickly be out of a job, but craftmanship that lasts like that is definitely something to value in todays mass market paperback world.

  6. Karen, this is just fascinating. Never knew about this.
    There’s nothing like holding a beautiful work of art in your hands.

    I want to see one where Rhett Butler carries Scarlett up those stairs.

  7. I had never heard of this before. I have a collection of old books. I will have to check them to see if any have this hidden treasure. The old books are so special. The lithographs and other details are wonderful. Some of the little books I have are works of art.

    I’d like to see a fore-edge painting of the whale attacking the ship on a copy of MOBY DICK.

    Thank you for a most informative post. I’ll be checking my books this weekend.

  8. Patricia – Let me know if you find any hidden art in your books. How cool would that be? It’s very rare, but what a treasure to find one.

    Moby Dick is a great classic choice. That whale would be phenominal.

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