Saturday, 14 July 2012

Elephant No. 286: Fore-Edge Painting

I never knew there was an official name for this type of painting, but it looked like an interesting thing to try for today's elephant.

A fore-edge painting is, as the name suggests, a painting on the "fore-edge" of a book's pages: the side of the page farthest away from the spine. The earliest fore-edge paintings may date back as far as the tenth century A.D., when they generally consisted of symbolic designs. By the fourteenth century, fore-edge paintings in England featured heraldic designs in gold and/or other colours.

There are two basic types of fore-edge painting. The most common type involves edges that have been fanned: the effect you get when you gently bend a book's binding. In this type, the design can only be fully seen when the pages are fanned. The other type involves edges that are closed, meaning that the painting shows properly only when the book is closed and the edges are flush.

Fore-edge painting of a billiard game on a 1772 copy of the Book of Common Prayer,
part of a private American collection auctioned by Christies in 2010.

There are a number of variations in fore-edge painting:

Single fore-edge painting: Painting only on one side of the book's pages. Gilt or marbling is applied to the closed edge after the painting has dried, making the painting invisible when the book is closed.

Double fore-edge painting: Paintings on both sides of the outer margin, so that one painting is visible when the pages are fanned one way, and another is visible when the pages are fanned the other way.

Triple fore-edge painting: Paintings on both sides of the outer margin, as well as a third painting directly on the edges, instead of gilding or marbling.

Panoramic fore-edge painting: Paintings wrapped around more than one edge. This is also sometimes called "triple-edge painting".

The earliest example of a fore-edge painting that becomes invisible when the book is closed dates to A.D. 1649. By 1750, fore-edge paintings had evolved from heraldic designs and decorative patterns to religious scenes, portraits and landscapes, usually in full colour. These often bore no direct relation to the subject of the book.

Fore-edge paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were far more elaborate than earlier types, and often featured scenes from novels. The choice of subject matter was usually made by a bookbinder, artist, bookseller, or even the owner of the book, making for an extensive range of scenes. Most existing examples of fore-edge painting date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Today, there are a number of artists producing expert works of fore-edge painting, largely in the United Kingdom. Most involve fanned pages, and some are incredibly elaborate. It is unusual to see a fore-edge painting on display, however, because of the damage fanning does to a book's binding.

Panoramic fanned fore-edge painting of London by modern
master Martin Frost.

Despite the fact that I have a very large personal library, I don't have a single example of fore-edge painting on any of my books—unless you count the scribbled pen on the closed edges of some of my childhood books. I  blame this on one of my brothers, who showed a remarkable tendency to add personal graffiti to my toys when he was small.

Because I didn't really have an appropriate book to muck about with, I went to a local thrift store and bought this copy of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. It came in a "Classics Club" edition, so it looks nice but isn't overly valuable.

Although this is a novel criticizing Victorianism and has really nothing to do with elephants, it does refer to them from time to time, as in this passage recommending a course of treatment for one of the characters who is of a rather nervous disposition:
I have found the Zoological Gardens of service to many of my patients. I should prescribe for Mr Pontifex a course of the larger mammals. Don’t let him think he is taking them medicinally, but let him go to their house twice a week for a fortnight, and stay with the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros, and the elephants, till they begin to bore him. I find these beasts do my patients more good than any others. The monkeys are not a wide enough cross; they do not stimulate sufficiently.  The larger carnivora are unsympathetic. The reptiles are worse than useless, and the marsupials are not much better. Birds again, except parrots, are not very beneficial; he may look at them now and again, but with the elephants and the pig tribe generally he should mix just now as freely as possible.        —Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, Chapter 79

The "elephants and the pig tribe" it is.

If you decide to try a fore-edge painting, a few tips on choosing the right book:

1. Use a hardcover book. A pretty binding is nice, but make sure it's not falling apart. Fanning the pages and holding them in place while you paint puts a lot of strain on the binding.

2. Make sure the edges are reasonably even. Some older books have loose bindings or rough edges that will make painting difficult. If the edges are somewhat soft and frayed, the paint will also absorb differently than if the edges are more crisp. Similarly, an uncoated paper is better than a glossy paper, in terms of accepting the paint.

3. Avoid edges that are foxed or heavily stained. Not only is it difficult to paint these heavily enough to make them disappear, but foxing (a form of mould) can spread over time, ruining your work.

It took me about half an hour to find a book that met all of the above conditions. Once I got it home, I fanned it to a width I liked, and clamped it between two pieces of foamcore. The clamping is important in terms of keeping the pages in place while you're working. Even if you're working with a closed book rather than a fanned one, clamping will help. Before tightening the clamps, make sure your pages are lying evenly in relation to one another on the sides and on your painting surface, as well as in relation to the cover.

(I apologize for the final photograph in the trio of images below. It was in focus when I snapped the shutter, but the camera clearly had other ideas. It will give you some idea, however, of the angle at which the pages were fanned.)

Once I was ready to go, I thought I should perhaps sketch something to guide me. I took my inspiration from the Butler quotation and did something that I thought might be evocative of zoological gardens. The sketching actually took me a lot longer than I expected. This was partly because I was going to include other animals in addition to an elephant, but adding a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros looked odd. Then I was going to do a scene which included humans, but I didn't like the way that looked, either. So I settled on a design with three elephants.

In an attempt to be as traditional as possible, I used good-quality cake watercolours. I started by roughing in the elephants with grey paint.

Painting something like this is actually quite tricky. If the paint is too wet, it tends to bleed and/or suck into the paper immediately. If the paint is too dry, it doesn't spread at all. What eventually worked best for me was to use relatively dry paint for the shadows and outlines, then colour things in with much wetter paint. The dry paint acted as a sort of resist in this case, keeping the wet paint more or less contained.

Because I found the final drawing too soft-focus due to paint bleed, I used faint pencil lines to add a bit of definition here and there.

For a fanned painting, the closed edges are often gilded or marbled once the fore-edge painting is done. This is done by closing the book, clamping it, then gilding or marbling the edges. This makes the fore-edge painting "disappear" until the book is fanned again.

I was actually going to try for a disappearing painting, but a gilding test I on a cheap paperback was underwhelming. Rather than risk destroying my painting, I decided to leave it as it was. As you can see, the painting is deformed and compressed when the book is closed, but the painting is still quite recognizable.

In principle, I suppose this isn't all that different from doodling on the side of a textbook during a boring lecture—although in execution it's obviously far more time-consuming. I think it would have been more exciting and magical if I'd used a thicker book and fanned the pages even wider. And if I could have gilded it.

I'm determined to try again for a disappearing painting once I've had a chance to play with gilded book edges, but for now, this is quite pretty in real life.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although the London Zoo in Regent's Park is considered the world's oldest scientific zoo, it has had a rather checkered history when it comes to elephants.

Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London opened its Gardens in April 1828. The collection of animals had been established for the purposes of scientific study, and admission was limited to members of the Society until 1847. The zoo featured some unusual and exotic animals, including the now-extinct quagga and thylacine. As time went on, animals were transferred from other collections, including the Royal Menageries at the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.

The first elephant house was built at the zoo in 1831. Designed by Decimus Burton, it was an amalgam of exotic elements and British styles. Called the Elephant Stables, it was an attractive building, but far too small to comfortably house large animals such as elephants. The situation was even sadder because zoos of the time believed that tropical animals living in northern climates should not be allowed outdoors except during the hottest months. It wasn't until 1902 that zookeepers realized that tropical animals could be acclimatized to colder weather.

Original elephant house by Decimus Burton at the Gardens of
the Zoological Society of London.
From: Natural History and Views of London, 1835.

By 1869, the original Elephant Stables had been enlarged and combined with rhinoceros enclosures. The animals' new home looked more like a house for humans than a place for elephants. This was also too small for elephants—or rhinoceros, for that matter.

Renovated Elephant and Rhinoceros House by Anthony Salvin.
From: The Illustrated London News, 1869.
Source: A_Brief_History_of_European_Elephant_Houses_from_Londons_Imperial_

This is not to say that Londoners didn't care about elephants. London's elephants were, in fact, much loved by the general population. A number of elephants—including the famous Jumbo—were trained to give children rides in special carriers on their backs, and when it looked as though Jumbo would be sold in 1887, thousands of schoolchildren petitioned Queen Victoria to keep Jumbo in the country.

By the early 1930s, scientists were more aware of the needs of elephants, and new enclosures were built at the London Zoo's location in Whipsnade Park, Bedfordshire. These were utilitarian structures, rather than decorative ones, providing the elephants with room and amenities more suited to their size and special needs.

Lubetkin/Tekton Elephant Houses, Whipsnade Zoo, 1935.

The decorative elephant houses at Regent Park—still being used to house elephants—were rebuilt in the early 1960s. The buildings by Sir Hugh Casson were meant to evoke a group of elephants at a waterhole. The rough concrete shell was supposed to have a texture similar to elephant hide, and the green lantern roofs were supposed to look like elephants' raised heads. These buildings worked for many years, providing elephants with an adequate environment.

Elephant and Rhino Pavilion by Sir Hugh Casson. Today, the pavilion is
home to a herd of East Indian bearded pigs, seen in this photograph.

Today, however, there are no elephants at the zoo in Regent's Park. In October 2001, a zookeeper named Jim Robson was crushed to death when an elephant rolled on him. The Zoological Society decided that it would be best for the zoo's three elephants if they were moved to the Whipsnade facility, to join the elephants already in residence there.

A zoo spokesman said that plans to move the elephants had been in the works for some time, and that the move was not connected to Robson's death. The elephants were transferred to Whipsnade in late 2001, where they were given a larger enclosure and became part of the zoo's breeding program. After 170 years at the zoo, and centuries more in menageries and circuses, London's last live elephants packed up their trunks and left the city.

Asian elephants at London Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire.
Photo: ZSL Whipsnade Zoo/PA

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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