I had never heard of "fore-edge paintings" until one night at the bookstore where I work, Dan, the owner, showed me an antique book he had just purchased, and by sliding the page ends on an angle there was a seemingly hidden painting actually painted on the page ends. He said he collected books with fore-edge paintings, but that they were hard to come by. Ever since then I've been interested in the topic and have recently come across some good sites with all kinds of interesting images of fore-edge paintings and their history.
Apparently, fore-edge painting is as old as the 10th century and usually come in two types. One type is painted right on the page ends and can be seen when the book is in its normal state. The other (the one Dan showed me) is a hidden painting that can only be revealed when the pages are slightly fanned out. Also, you can have a double fore-edged painting that is revealed when you fan the pages one way and then another. And finally there is a triple fore-edge painting that comes when the page ends arent gilded or marbled. Here is an example of a simple fore-edge painting on an antiquarian book:
Initially, these paintings were simple floral patterns or manor seals. Somewhere in the 18th century the paintings became landscapes; a tradition which continues to the present day. Several museums have had shows which featured fore-edge paintings. I'd love to go to one. I think it would be fascinating to see several examples from different centuries all gathered in one place.
Wouldn't it be great if we could do this with regular trade editions? Why doesn't Steve Erickson or James Carrol work out something with their publisher to do a hidden fore-edge painting on one of their new books? Something that is a clue in the plot, or a symbol for the theme of the novel? Too bad that this wonderful technique is confined to mostly antiquarian books and collectors. I truly believe that if I hadn't become an actor, I would be creating fore-edge paintings and fancy bindings for books. I think they are wonderful, beautiful works of art.