Fore-Edge Painting.

This has, technically speaking, nothing to do with language, but it has to do with books, and it’s so beautiful I can’t resist posting it: 40 Hidden Artworks Painted on the Edges of Books.

A fore-edge painting is a technique of painting on the edges of the pages of a book. The artwork can only be seen when the pages are fanned, as seen in the animation below. When the book is closed, you don’t see the image because it is hidden by the gilding (i.e., the gold leaf applied to the edges of the page). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, fore-edge paintings first arose during the European Middle Ages but came to prominence during the mid-17th century to the late 19th century. Anne C. Bromer for the Boston Public Library writes, “Most fore-edge painters working for binding firms did not sign their work, which explains why it is difficult to pinpoint and date the hidden paintings.”

Thanks to the generous gifts from Anne and David Bromer and Albert H. Wiggin, the Boston Public Library holds one of the finest collections of fore-edge paintings in the United States. Most of the collection has been put online for the world to enjoy and features more than 200 high-resolution images; complete with additional videos, articles and information. The University of Iowa and Colossal recently featured a few fore-edge paintings with animated gifs that can also be seen below.

15. The rambler, v.1 1825 by Samuel Johnson (Old Wych Street, London) and 31. Lalla Rookh, 1818 by Thomas Moore (Tyburn Turnpike, London) are particular favorites of mine — I’m a city boy, and I love street scenes.

Comments

  1. I’ve never held one of these books — does the edge painting appear only with the deliberate skewing of the edge that we see people demonstrating, or also with normal opening of a book in the middle, setting its pages to one side and the other?

    If that works, it will show the two different directions of edge painting on either side.

    Any particular paint type and technique? I can try felt tip markers on some dismal book being junked…

  2. Flexing the pages and holding them fanned seems to put a lot of pressure on the spine/bindings(?) Does the book eventually fall apart?

    Seeing Harewood House brings back lots of memories of Winter rambles ending at the ‘Harewood Arms’ for Yorkshire Puddings in onion gravy.

  3. The seasonal decay and decomposition of nature, 1837 by Robert Mudie

    Mudie’s Seasonal Decay. Right.

    I’ve never heard of this, it’s a bit like a hologram or tabula scalata. See also Lenticular printing.

  4. January First-of-May says:

    If that works, it will show the two different directions of edge painting on either side.

    In 2005 or so, i.e. probably in 9th grade, I wrote some words on the edge of my then-probably-still-current school тетрадка (um, notebook, I guess*) in both directions – so that either phrase (something along the lines of could be read depending on the direction of skew.
    (I don’t recall the phrases offhand, but it was something along the lines of моя старая тетрадка “my old notebook”.)

    When I accidentally discovered one of the inscriptions while looking through the text in 2018, the intervening decade (and a bit) of intermittent “storage” in random stacks of random stuff had left the poor thing skewed so much that the other inscription was barely visible.
    I could still see enough to guess that there was another inscription in the other direction; actually reading it, however, took quite a bit of deliberate skew (and even after that it wasn’t very clear).

    *) I keep getting confused about English notebook, not really being able to perceive it as the normal term for the paper object (which it apparently is), because it sounds too much like (and is probably the origin of) Russian ноутбук “laptop” (as in “portable computer”). I wonder if Germans get similarly confused by the English word handy

  5. John Cowan says:

    In English a notebook computer is traditionally smaller, lighter, and less powerful than a laptop computer, but the line between them is practically non-existent today.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    traditionally smaller, lighter, and less powerful than a laptop computer

    The term I learned for those computers is netbook (both in English and in Russian – нетбук).
    Don’t recall encountering it very much in English, though, now that I think of it…

    (Presumably the derivation is something along the lines of (inter)net (note)book, though I’m not sure why it would have applied to those varieties specifically; it probably wasn’t derived from book directly, because a direct derivation would probably rather have referred to e-books.
    Incidentally, as it happens, Russian didn’t borrow e-book, for obvious euphonical reasons […is that the right word?], so the usual Russian term for that object is the calque электронная книга.)

  7. David Marjanović says:

    A Netbook is, or was lo these onescore years ago, an Apple notebook that doesn’t have the usual programs on its harddisk and instead uses them online.

  8. New Year’s Honours
    One of the most unusual citations goes to Martin Frost, who receives an MBE for services to disappearing fore-edge painting. Frost, from Worthing, is reportedly the last commercial fore-edge painter, which involves painting an image on to the “stepped” incline of the edges of the pages of a book, which disappears when it is flat but comes alive as the pages are fanned.

    – from The Grudbucket.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I like ‘by Sir Walter Bart Scott’. Presumably the original catalogue listing said something like ‘Scott, Sir Walter, Bart.’!

  10. January, the Russian situation isn’t quite like the German, because English speakers do occasionally use notebook to mean notebook computer (if it doesn’t cause confusion in context), whereas I don’t think any use handy to mean mobile phone.

  11. You’re not addressing his point, which has nothing to do with the usage of English speakers; he wonders “if Germans get similarly confused by the English word handy,” which seems a reasonable supposition.

  12. I don’t think there can be much confusion because English handy is adjective (yes, there is a very narrow noun use, but c’mon) and German handy is a noun. And no matter what sophisticated linguists have discovered in languages around the world, at least in those two dialects of West Germanic it is a significant difference.

    Also, Germans in general know English well, which means that confusion, if there is one, should not persist.

  13. Of course it is, but if Germans use it very frequently in a particular way and then encounter it used in a very different way in English, I don’t see why it wouldn’t cause confusion, just as I imagine English speakers tend to be confused by the German use. People are not computers; they don’t automatically adjust to new input.

  14. In my experience, English-speaking Germans seem to know that handy is a false friend. Much more confusion arises from beamer, which means an overhead projector in German, although many Germans think that it is actually an English word. I have known Germans who were otherwise quite fluent speakers of English to react with disbelief when I told them that the only meaning of beamer in English is “BMW automobile.”

  15. What I meant is that upon hearing “I forgot my notebook at work” a Russian might interpret it as someone forgetting their laptop, while German would be hard pressed to misinterpret “I left my handy in the car”, because they are unlikely to hear it.

  16. John Cowan says:

    On my honor as a programmer, I assure you that people adjust to unexpected input much better than computers do.

  17. a German would be hard pressed to misinterpret “I left my handy in the car”, because they are unlikely to hear it.

    “He’s a handyman. I prefer face-to-face discussions.”
    The Handy Squad
    “Google’s a handy way to resolve questions like this. Where’s your cellular telephone?”

  18. David Marjanović says:

    In my experience, English-speaking Germans seem to know that handy is a false friend.

    My generation was already taught it in school.

    Much more confusion arises from beamer, which means an overhead projector in German, although many Germans think that it is actually an English word.

    Beamer “projector connected to a computer” (never an old-fashioned overhead projector, so familiar from school) is spreading fast among scientists. I’m not sure if I’ve heard English native speakers say it yet, but it’s possible.

  19. Much more confusion arises from beamer, which means an overhead projector in German, although many Germans think that it is actually an English word. I have known Germans who were otherwise quite fluent speakers of English to react with disbelief when I told them that the only meaning of beamer in English is “BMW automobile.”

    To me a beamer is first and foremost a portion of a hide stretcher made from a deer’s leg bone. I own a fine one that I found in a collapsed house foundation in London, KY.

    I like ‘by Sir Walter Bart Scott’. Presumably the original catalogue listing said something like ‘Scott, Sir Walter, Bart.’!

    The Baptist Hymnal contains, or did when I was a boy, a hymn by “Alfred L. Tennyson.”

  20. the only meaning of beamer in English is “BMW automobile.”

    For this BrE speaker, that’s not the only meaning, it’s not even the first meaning that comes to mind (neither had I heard the ‘hide stretcher’ sense).

    A beamer is a heavy blow that knocks you unconscious. Hence a ball bowled in cricket aimed at head height. I assume it derives from the nautical sense of beamer/a wave that rolls a ship on to its beam ends.

  21. So a beamer in cricket is like a beaner in baseball.

  22. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I’ve never heard the ‘heavy blow’ sense, but the first and approximately only* meaning that comes to mind for me is a red face from embarrassment.

    *I’m kind of aware of seeing the BMW sense before now it’s been pointed out, but had no idea anyone in the real world actually said it!

  23. @David Marjanović: I am surprised that the word beamer is not universally known among German scientists by now. I’ve seen it as a button label on German audio-visual control systems multiple times. And of course it does indeed mean a digital overhead projector, although the old-fashioned kind seems to be pretty much obselete these days. They never use them at my kids’ schools, and it’s been about fifteen years since I saw a scientist give a talk with physical transparencies. (And the scientist in question was incredibly clueless about technological matters. A few years later, he got taken by an Internet scammer and ended up arrested trying to smuggle contraband into the U.S. on her behalf.)

    @Jen in Edinburgh: If I actually had to spell the BMW meaning, I would probably make it “beemer,” but that might just be me. It’s not a slang term one sees written that often, although it certainly is in common usage.

    That there are plenty of other idiomatic meanings of beamer is not really a surprise either. I should not have been so sweeping in my statement. I will probably have a look at what the OED has to say on the matter tonight.

  24. Brett: If I actually had to spell the BMW meaning, I would probably make it “beemer,”

    Right. I’ve also seen (maybe in Britain) ‘Bimmer’. Words with missing vowels, like Flickr. It could even be ‘Bummer’.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    I am surprised that the word beamer is not universally known among German scientists by now.

    I’m sure it is. I meant it’s spreading among scientists worldwide. And yes, it refers to digital projectors, never to those for transparencies, which in German were called… Overheadprojektor.

    it’s been about fifteen years since I saw a scientist give a talk with physical transparencies

    Ten years or maybe a bit less in my case, but that was the acceptance speech of a distinguished elderly colleague who had just won a lifetime award.

    Around the same year, another conference said in its circular that if we need an “archaeological item” like an overhead projector [for physical transparencies], we should contact the organizers in advance.

    I have not seen a conference talk given with physical slides, but I’ve heard all the scary stories: slides getting stuck, Australian slides being slightly larger than all others and getting stuck in projectors everywhere else…

    Speaking of scary stories: YouTube proves that there are linguists whose conference presentations are speeches without any visual support.

  26. The OED gives three definitions for beamer: 1. A person who works with a beam; e.g. one who arranges yarn on the beam of the loom; 2. A person who beams or smiles broadly; and number three is the Cricket meaning, defined in one of the cites as “a ball aimed high by the bowler, often to the height of the batsman’s head.” The first two are pretty transparent.

    The OED says the BMW meaning is principally spelled Beemer, although down-case beemer and Beamer are also attested. Surprisingly, the Beamer form is apparently a proprietary name in the United Kingdom.

  27. 1961 F. C. Avis Sportsman’s Gloss.* 111/2 Beamer, a ball aimed high by the bowler, often to the height of the batsman’s head.    

    Not very often. Not if they want to hit the wicket.

    *The OED has used this book for other citations including for football and president. F.C. Avis isn’t a German football team, it’s Frederick Compton Avis who also wrote Sixteenth Century Long Shop Printing Office In The Poultry (Poultry is a street in the City of London.)

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