The artists that executed these unusual paintings were intimately involved with the book binding process. They tended to prefer to work with smaller volumes, as this produced a better effect when the picture was revealed. The text block was positioned so that the fore-edge was to the right if you were holding the book as if to read it. This is considered the “right way” of positioning the book before the fore-edge painting was applied (Weber 60). Before the fore-edge painting was started the book was already in “boards,” meaning that the text block or the pages of the book had been stitched together with the cover ( see diagram ). At this point the text block had also been ploughed (or trimmed) and burnished. So, out of necessity the binding process was started but was not completed (Swan 82).

The next step was to slightly fan the pages of the text block and then securely clamp them together. The text block had to be held very tightly, otherwise the watercolor paint used to execute the fore-edge painting would bleed or run and mar the pages of the book. Watercolors also had a tendency to run along the page lines of the text block, so it was necessary for the artist to use as dry a brush as possible while applying the paint with perpendicular strokes (Swan 83). Only watercolors could be used to create a fore-edge painting, as they would be absorbed by the paper, and would not cause the pages of a book to stick together, as would happen if, for example, oil paints were used. Another advantage of using watercolors is that they can handle being fanned repeatedly, while oil paints would crack and crumble.

The fore-edge painting was allowed to dry completely before the gilt (gold leaf) was applied to the edges of the text block. The gilding process had to be completed carefully so as not to cause the painting to run. Once the painting was completely dry it was released from the clamp or vise and the text block was squared up again. Then the text block was clamped very securely once again to avoid marring the painting during the multi-step gilding process. At this point the fore-edge of the text block may have been scraped and burnished again; then sizing (diluted egg white solution or gluten from boiled parchment or vellum) was applied with a fine brush or sponge to allow the gold leaf to adhere; then the gold leaf was cut to size and applied with a brush; finally, it was burnished again when everything was completely dry (Hughes 602). If the gilt was not properly applied the painting will show through even when the book is closed. In some instances the fore-edge of the books were marbled, which was a less expensive way to treat the edges than gilding (Swan 87)

An example of gilding that “hides” the fore-edge painting. (Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King . London : Edward Moxon & Co., 1867.) (From the George M. & Alice Gill Collection)>


An example of gilding that poorly conceals the fore-edge painting. (Figuier, Louis. Les Races Humanes . Paris :Librairie Hachette et cie, 1872.) (From the George M. & Frances L. Gill Collection)


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