Lets have a look at bindings at a different angle, the one of their edges.
Everything, and this is literal, in the binding’s structure serves a functional purpose in creating a shell to protect the valuable essence of books , which is a tangible form of the human mind and soul. And as shells differ in their beauty by using shapes textures and colors so do bindings. And edge decoration is one such aspect.
Dust and other particles, humidity and sunlight constantly attack the book’s most vulnerable points; the edges. Binders discovered that a flush cut and highly polished book edge (especially the upper one which goes under heavier use and is more exposed) made the book more resilient against these hazards. This procedure opened a great number of decorating possibilities which binders exploited to the extreme.
Coloring edges or having them lavishly covered in gold has been the most common form of edge decoration. Even a simply colored edge can make a plain binding look special. Coloring edges doesn’t require much knowledge or experience, as long as one knows how to work with colors wonders can be achieved. Gilt edges on the other hand require expertise and a skilled artisan. Even so it is a difficult process that requires familiarity with numerous materials and their behavior and the dexterity of a surgeon. There’s actually a poem called “Gilder’s lament” (see link at the end) from an unknown 17th century gilder who expresses his frustration after a failed attempt at gilding a book.
Marbling edges was at its peak in the 19th century and declined at the dawn of the 20th. This way the book’s edges are made to look exactly as the marbled paper used for the endleaves or on the binding’s cover. To achieve this the book is carefully dipped into a soapy solution that has the desired pattern in liquid form. It’s quite impressive and there are not many that can still perform this way of decorating edges.
Secret edge paintings could make a rare bookseller’s or conservator’s heart skip a bit when discovered. That’s right, discovered. The painting is visible neither when the book is closed nor when you read it. And that’s cause the painting was done with the pages fixed at a certain angle and opening the book in a particular manner is the only way to reveal its secret. Of course book edges can be painted normally as any other surface but I decided to share this more intricate version of edge painting. So, aren’t those pictures breathtaking?
Of course there can always be a combination of edge coloring, gilding and painting. Add some tooling in the mix and the result gives grandeur a new meaning. In these remarkable examples the edge decoration has been more time consuming and costly than the binding itself but the results clearly speak for themselves.
I’ll leave you with some links related to the topic.
Martin Frost , a British foreedge painter
geraty_gilding A manual in gilding by Peter Geraty including “Gilder’s Lament”!
Teo ,apart from being a talented binder, colors book edges every now and then with vivid designs. She has a post with pics showing the process.