by Ann Neilson
When browsing through used books, undoubtedly one will come across a name of ownership and/or inscription, along with a date and, if gifted, “To:— From:—.” Many of these are of interest to both collectors and casual readers, as they offer a personal glimpse into the previous owner’s life. However, the art of inscribing in books is, of course, not new to today’s modern readership, and in fact was more elaborate in past centuries.
Bookplates, or ex-libris, were especially common during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. These displayed a pictorial representation of ownership, sometimes marking heraldry, sometimes portraying the owner themselves. These pictures were paired with either a name, an inscription, or both. Inscriptions were commonly phrases, such as family mottos, or general statements (for example, an insert statement may say something along the lines of “don’t steal my book”). According to King’s College, Cambridge online, simple bookplates date back to the Middle Ages, with the earliest known printed bookplates dating to the 15th century. The Jacobean period to Edwardian era saw a shift in elaborating these bookplates, incorporating “engravings and etchings known as ex-libris (‘from the books of…’)” into the plates.
Over the span of several centuries, numerous styles emerged. For example, and according to the Bookplate Society, which also provides a comprehensive list of all of the British styles, along with detailed written and pictorial descriptions of each type, Heraldic bookplates dated from 1580-1680; Early Armorial bookplates dated from 1680-1715; Jacobean Armorial dated from 1715-1745; Chippendale Armorial plates dated from 1740-1770; Festoon, Wreath and Ribbon, and Spade Shield Armorial plates dated from 1770-1810; Landscape and Pictorial dated from 1780-1820; and Plain Armorial dated from 1800-1900. To view examples of famous bookplates, both American and European, dating from the 18th-20th centuries, you can click here.
Because of the artistic and historic value of each unique plate, these have become collectible and highly valued today. As mentioned, there is great artistic value in these unique items; so great was the artistic value, that creating bookplates was a profession for some artists. For example, even a quick glimpse through A Directory of Bookplate Artists edited by Alfred Fowler from 1919 will imply the desire, or at least the high competition, of bookplate artists. You can even still contact modern bookplate artists to commission your own, unique plate.
To learn more about bookplates and to view other examples of bookplates throughout history, you can visit the Bookplate Society and the American Society of Bookplate Collectors & Designers. To read more about American bookplates specifically, I recommend American book-plates, a guide to their study with examples by Charles Dexter Allen.
All in all, the next time you come across an antique book, be sure to give the plate a second glance—you never know the story it will tell. Below, you will find a couple from my own collection that tell their own stories. Note: these are posted only for educational purposes.
This plate comes from the collection of Robert Apthorp Boit, author of Eustis: A Novel. The plate dons the “ex-libris” statement, and the artist’s name, L. S. Ipsen, can be found in the bottom right corner of the plate. Because Boit lived from 1846-1919, this clue gives me reason to, naturally, believe it dates to the late 19th century, early 20th century. Do you have any ideas of its specific plate period? Please feel free to comment below!
This plate comes from William Herbert, Dean of Manchester. (See this similar one from Yale.) The artist is identified as Cole, although I am unsure as to whom this artist may be. It bears the Carnarvon motto, “Ung je serviray” (“I will serve but one master”), and represents the Carnarvon crest. Because of the Rococo-esque style of this plate, I deduce it is of the Chippendale Armorial period. Although Herbert was born in 1778, eight years after the end of this period, it likens most to this style, and is unlike the Festoon, Wreath and Ribbon, or Spade Shield Armorial styles. Again, what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.