The Disappearing Art of Vanishing Fore-Edge Painting

An interview with fore-edge painter Martin Frost
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
April 2, 2019 Updated: April 3, 2019

“Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” For over 40 years, these have been the words that fore-edge painter Martin Frost has heard the most when people have seen his work for the first time, and it’s a delight he never tires of hearing.

Frost continues the critically endangered UK heritage craft of fore-edge painting, in particular vanishing fore-edge painting, a craft whereby images are painted on the fanned page edges of a book and are therefore hidden under the gilded tips of a page, or less commonly, under the marbled tips of a page.

Gilding book edge
Vanishing fore-edge paintings can only be seen when the book pages are flexed at a certain angle. (Foredgefrost)
Book with painting on the edge
Frost’s fore-edge painting of London’s river Thames flows along the edges of a circa 1880 edition of “The Book of the Thames.”(Foredgefrost)

In the 2019 New Year Honors list, Frost was honored for his services in preserving the disappearing art of fore-edge painting and awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire, a national honor.

Below, Frost shares his thoughts about the dying tradition of fore-edge painting and reveals how the hidden images can be seen.

The Epoch Times: Please tell us about your work.
Martin Frost: Vanishing fore-edge painting is a form of book art for book decoration unlike any other. I decorate books in a way that is invisible unless you know how to open the book properly to show the image. It’s sort of very English; we English, we’re great ones for doing things a bit strange. We like the odd, we like the quirky, we like the unusual, and vanishing fore-edge painting is certainly that.

Man paints on books, artist.
Martin Frost paints vanishing fore-edge paintings in his studio in Worthing, England. (Foredgefrost)

I’m a painter; I don’t call myself an artist because an artist will create new images. I do a lot of images that I’ve acquired from elsewhere, so there’s a fair amount of copywork going on. But I’m a painter, and I paint images, and I’m happiest when I’ve got a paintbrush in my hand. It’s not work; it’s fun, basically.

Painting Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper
Martin Frost’s painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is a popular choice for the edges of Bibles and prayer books. (Foredgefrost)

For example, I do a lot of copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” basically on Bibles and prayer books, but each one is slightly different. That’s the joy of hand-created work. You can put a bit of yourself into it, and you don’t get that when you’re producing work for the print trade—where you produce an image and then it’s just repeated by the thousand. There’s a lot less zest, as such, with that.

Jesus painting on book
Fore-edge paintings on Bibles are a common commission for Martin Frost. (Foredgefrost)

The Epoch Times: How did you come to be a fore-edge painter?
Mr. Frost: Well, I’ve always been a painter and artist. My father was a professional painter. He was a member of The Pastel Society, so as I grew up, there was always painting going on, there was always drawing going on, and so there was no fear of art. It’s what we did.

I didn’t really want to do painting; I wanted to do something a bit different, so actually my training was in theater. I produced set designs, stage designs, costumes, props, and backdrops.

It was when I was working at Glyndebourne, the local opera house, that I met up with Don Noble, a colleague who was also doing stage work.

Noble had been doing fore-edge painting for decades, and he showed me what he did. And I thought, “I could do that; that’s pretty straightforward. I’ll have a go at that.”

And I did. I tried my hand, and offered them to one of the local bookshops, and they said, “That’s not bad; we’ll buy that.”

Painting foredge
A scene straight out of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain on the edge of an 1885 English first edition of the book. (Forgedgefrost)

Admittedly, it took me a few years to actually move away from my work in the theater, and I then moved into newspaper design, typography, and print, but all the time, I was still painting on the edges of books.

Back in the 1980s, there was a revival of fore-edge painting, so there was enough work for me to actually call myself a full-time professional fore-edge painter, and it’s been like that ever since.

The Epoch Times: Can you give us an overview of the history of fore-edge painting?
Mr. Frost: The earliest examples of fore-edge painting that we know of—now, that doesn’t mean that they are the earliest, but the ones that we have evidence of—go back to about 1650 in London. They tended to be of armorial crests, coats of arms, lettering, and emblems. They weren’t picturesque, but they did vanish under the edge gilding.

About a hundred years later, in the late 18th century, Edwards of Halifax, in Yorkshire, resurrected it. The Edwards family really commercialized vanishing fore-edge painting, and they did some very nice work and some very nice bindings as well. They were primarily a bookbindery, but they were always interested in trying other things as well. They were quite the trailblazers, and their work is very collectible now. They produced picturesque vanishing paintings on the edges of books; they were views of houses, seascapes, and townscapes—the sort of paintings that were being hung on walls at the time.

The story of fore-edge painting is the story of a sort of wave formation: It comes in, it’s popular, then it sort of drifts away, and then it is rediscovered a generation or so later. That’s what happened in my time, really. Back in the 1980s, it was riding high. It was very popular.

It’s not as popular now. We don’t sell as many; we don’t produce as many because it’s a fashion thing, really.

Painting of golfers
Often, fore-edge paintings reflect the book owner’s interests rather than the book’s subject matter. Here, golfers are on the edge of an 1874 edition of “The Heir of Redclyffe,” a romance novel by Charlotte M. Yonge. (Foredgefrost)

I started fore-edge painting around 1970 and have produced around 3,500 so far.

The Epoch Times: Can you tell us about the actual process of the fore-edge painting?
Mr. Frost: The technique I use is to fan out the book, and then I put it into a press, and a clamp holds the book into position for me to do the painting.

American civil war
A press holds open “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: A Tribute of the Nations,” published in 1867. This is an example of split-double fore-edge paintings, where a larger book is split in two and painted. (Foredgefrost)

The books don’t always fan easily; sometimes if the paper is very stiff, they don’t fan very well. If the paper is too thin, they over-fan, so there are optimum types of books to work on.  

The painting is a little strange, actually. I use English watercolors because I’m a bit of a traditionalist. However, painting with English watercolors is usually a very wet process. First you put water down on the paper, then you add color afterward, and you get a lovely blur and blend. But you don’t do that with fore-edge painting because if you add a lot of water onto the fan edge of the book, the pages will ripple and you end up with a very wobbly-looking book.

Moby Dick painting on book
A scene from a 1930 edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” (Foredgefrost)

So it’s a dry brush technique that I use, which is very unusual for English watercolors, but I find it’s the technique that works for me.

Alice and rabbit painted on book
A fore-edge painting on an 1897 edition of “Alice in Wonderland.” (Foredgefrost)

The Epoch Times: Do you only paint on antique books?
Mr. Frost: No one had thought about combining modern binding with fore-edge painting until I really got involved. I could see that the market was changing. The market for the old books was beginning to wither, and I thought the technique of vanishing fore-edge painting could be applied to modern books just as easily as old books, so long as you could involve the binder, who needs to remake the book and apply gold on the edges because modern books do not have gilded edges. It then became a necessity to find out how to rebind and gild modern books in order to hide the painting. So fore-edge painting onto modern books is a lot more work than going out and buying an old leather book with the gold edges already on it and painting that.

My preference is to always create a new binding rather than use the old production binding. I like working in leather and gold, using the old artisan techniques, the old crafts of bookbinding, so I’m working within a tradition.

You can produce some very interesting modern work. I tend not to do that: I’m a bit of a traditionalist here. Some of the techniques that I use for putting a book back together again are the same methods bookbinders have used for the last 400 years.

Fore-edge painting Shakespeare
Split-double fore-edge paintings on an 1863 edition of “The Works of William Shakespeare.” (Foredgefrost)

The Epoch Times: Where did you learn the skills of bookbinding and gilding?
Mr. Frost: You learn it on the job; there are no apprentices these days. The old bookbinding guilds have just about vanished, so I’ve had to learn the skills myself. But I’ve got a lot of friends who are bookbinders, who have been doing it for a long time, so I pick their brains mercilessly.

The handcraft bookbinders, they’re all basically like me: They’re all people who love what they are doing and are invariably happy to pass on the information to others who show an interest.

I’m a one-stop craftsman now. I can take it from the printed pages straight up to the finished job, and I am on my own like that. I am the only one doing fore-edge painting, book gilding, gilding the pages, and binding as well.

This is handcraft work, which is a skill, and I’ve been doing it for over 40 years now, and it’s taken me that time to get up to where I am now. It’s not something that you just look at on YouTube and say, “Oh yeah, that’s how you do that.” It’s something that you have to plod away at, and we’ve got to the stage now where people are appreciating that.

In fact, I like to think that craft in the arts is enjoying a bit of a revival. People are saying: “Yes, we can get our iPhones. They’re produced by the hundreds of thousands. They’re amazing things, but they’re not really human.”

Chariot racing
Two chariots race each other in a scene from ancient Rome on the edge of “Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History,” 1887 edition. (Foredgefrost)

Now a book, a book by its very nature is a very tactile thing. It’s a very enjoyable thing. You can pick it up, you can put it down, you can rifle through it, you can feel it, and you can even smell it if it’s a leather-bound book. It’s quite distinctive, and then if you can find a special secret surprise on it that has been handcrafted just for that book, it becomes something really special. And that, to my mind, is what craft is all about. These are one-offs. What you’ll get with a fore-edge painting is something absolutely unique in your hands, and there will never be another one quite like it.

To find out more about Martin Frost’s fore-edge paintings, visit ForedgeFrost.co.uk

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Foredge painting of boatds
A scene on a 1912 edition of “The Poetical Works of Longfellow,” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Foredgefrost)
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