Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Elizabeth's Court Revealed

Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth is, at first glance, an unimpressive pair of volumes bound in blue leather. However, a closer look at the gilt fore-edge of each book reveals patches of color peeking through. When the books are opened, the gilded edges shift and the colors resolve into exquisitely detailed scenes of Elizabethan England.

In the first volume, a very recognizable portrait of Henry VIII is paired with a view of Hampton Court Palace, a tiny red-coated guard standing watch in the background. As the reader moves through the history of Elizabeth's life, Henry VIII disappears and Elizabeth I, paired with a view of London from Westminster Abbey, comes into view on the book's other side.

The technique of painting the edges of books is known as fore-edge painting (the fore-edge being the edge opposite the spine), and was popular in England around the time that Memoirs of the Court of Queen Elizabeth was published in 1819. Before each volume was bound, the text block was slightly fanned open, then clamped in a vice so an artist could paint the scene. After the painting was finished, the book was allowed to spring back to its normal shape and the edges were gilded, protecting the painting and concealing the color until the book was opened again, this time to the surprise and delight of its reader.

Ask for Rare DA355 .A5 to see this transformation for yourself.

Posted for Anne Peale '11

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