Paint Schoodic

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Animated books from antiquity

Fore-edge painting of Diana sitting with a handmaid by a lake, c. 1817, Boston Public Library. You can see a video of the book here.
Yesterday, my friend John Nicholson sent me this lovely link to gifs of fore-edge painting of books.“I am truly amazed by the love lavished on books before the paperback epidemic,” he wrote.

That made me smile, because my only experience with fore-edge painting was defacing the paperback texts we were issued in high school. Being a perennially bad student, I amused myself with a crude kind of fore-edge animation where you could make an animal or man run across the pages. This took no skill whatsoever, but it was tedious, so it helped to have someone droning on in the background.

Martin Frost was a contemporary British fore-edge painter. You can see his gallery here.
Gifs and videos are, paradoxically, the best way to experience fore-edge painting if you're not lucky enough to hold the book in your hands. These books were intended to be interactive.

There are early examples of fore-edge painting that date back as early as the 10th century, but these were simple designs meant to identify books. As daft as it seems, it appears that readers shelved their books with the spine facing in, so the fore-edge painting served the same purpose as spine lettering today. Anyone who ever wrote their name along the fore-edge of a textbook to prevent it being stolen understands the principle. By the 14th century, these spine paintings had formalized into heraldic designs. The sixteenth-century engraver Cesare Vecellio (a cousin of Titian) is credited with raising the level of fore-edge paintings to fine art.

Watership Down, special limited edition of 250 copies. This fore-edge painting was one of ten done in 1976 by Don Noble, from online catalogue by Abe Books.
Until this time, fore-edge paintings were direct: they were painted on the flat bound edge of a book, intended to be seen when the book was closed. In the 17th century, an English bookbinder, Samuel Mearne, developed the hidden fore-edge painting. The flat surface is gilt; a painting is produced on the very closest edges of the page, so that when the book is fanned, the picture appears. The English raised this book form to its greatest height toward the end of the 18th century, but fore-edge painting is an art-form that is alive and well in the current age. Among these are the occasional animated fore-edged painting; the high-brow cousin of my high school game.

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