Story 4 A normal book with an elegant binding - nothing to see here-min

The late Dr Michael Powell, the much missed former head librarian at Chetham’s Library, used to love to surprise my guests when I took them on tours around the building.

He didn’t jump out and shout boo whilst wearing a comedic mask, no, he used the extraordinary resources of the library. One example which always charmed people was a classic example of fore edge painting.

On the face of it, looking at a mid-nineteenth century volume of Samuel Rogers’ largely forgotten or derided poetry revealed nothing remarkable. True, the binding was a lovely red leather and that gold paint edging on the pages was impressive. 

Then the magic would happen. 

By holding those gold fringed page edges a certain way Michael would make appear a charming early nineteenth century view of the River Irwell between Manchester from Salford. You would simply never know it was there unless you knew.

The Chetham’s website explains the process. 

‘The image is an example of fore-edge painting, which has been created by fanning the pages and holding them in a vice while the minute watercolour scene is applied to the edges. Once dry, the book is released from the vice and the pages are then gilded to obscure the painting.

‘It is not known who created this tiny hidden masterpiece or when it was painted, but it seems likely that it may have been an amateur artist working shortly after the publication of the work.’

The Manchester image is a curious one in that usually artists captured scenes from the showpiece places of contemporary tourism, Venice, London, The Lake District, The Alps or, indeed, portraits of the wealthy. Our artist saw a beauty in an image of Manchester complete with spouting chimneys and thus achieved a sort of invisible anonymous immortality.

‘Invisible anonymous immortality’: that might well be the finest oxymoron you’ll read this week. But you know what I mean.

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