Hidden Art in Rare Old Books
March 25, 2013
A little more than a decade ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Rare Books Collection at MU in Columbia. There I saw a tiny handmade book (about 12cm x 11cm) with a handwritten manuscript by Charlotte Bronte. The writing was so small that you almost needed a magnifying glass to read the script. I also saw books printed on vellum (which was truly mammal skin prepared to be used for writing). The artifacts are so wonderful and awesome; I suggest you visit their webpage to view some of the items. It would also be well worth the effort to request a visit.
One of the most amazing items on display was books with what is called fore-edge painting. The fore-edge is opposite the spine. I believe most of us have seen books with beautiful gilt edges, where fore-edge art is displayed. Some are visible only when the book is closed. Once the book is opened, the art disappears. Some paintings are visible only when the pages are fanned in such a manner that exposes the hidden art. Some books even have two different fore-art images on the same book edge. One can be viewed when the pages are splayed from back to front, and the other image can be viewed only when the pages are fanned front to back.
There are books that actually have all three paintings! The oldest known examples of fore-edge paintings date back to approximately 1650. YouTube has some wonderful examples of fore-edge paintings and how you fan the pages so they can be viewed. Have fun looking!