What a Kindle / Nook / iPad Can't Do

'Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates'

by Catherine Ramsdell

15 August 2011

Books -- real, print, physical books -- say something about their owners and so, as the book Ex Libris makes clear, do bookplates.
cover art

Martin Hopkinson

Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates

(Yale University Press)
US: Jun 2011

Martin Hopkinson’s Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates opens with a Timothy Cole bookplate from 1913. Designed for Herman Theodore Radin, it depicts a room overflowing with books—books on shelves and books on tables. Books propped up against a skull and sitting on a chair.  Additionally, the bookplate includes a quote (credited to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a physician who was also an author): “Show me the books he loves and I shall know / The man far better than through mortal friends”.

In the debates, discussions, conversations, and quarrels I have had with friends about the various merits of print books and e-books, this same point keeps coming around. Readers love to ponder and peruse other readers’ bookshelves. And this is just something that can’t be replicated with a Kindle or Nook. Books—real, print, physical books—say something about their owners and so, as the book Ex Libris makes clear, do bookplates.
Ex Libris begins with a short history of the bookplate. Hopkinson relates that bookplates became popular shortly after Gutenberg’s death in 1468 and that at different times in their history, coats of arms, images of books, and Japanese imagery were all popular subject matters for bookplates. We learn that the “golden age for the collecting and appreciation of bookplates was roughly from 1890 to the mid-1920s” and that “the worldwide financial collapse in 1929 was largely responsible for its public demise”. Of course, mass-produced bookplates were still widely available, but “high-quality artist-designed bookplates…became the preserve of a much more enclosed private world of bibliophiles” until the ‘70s.

The mid-19th century saw the beginning of the “fully pictorial bookplate” and “the images chosen often reflect[ed] the owner’s life and interests, and express[ed] the intimate connection that people held with their books at that time”. It’s no surprise, then, that a bookplate for Dr. Alois Rogenhofer, who “published articles on crustacea” has a crab on it or that a bookplate titled A bit of blue and white created for Frederick Litchfield features “oriental ceramics”, which were a passion of Litchfield’s. Other bookplates include less literal connections such as ducks or geese, which “are Celtic symbols of honesty and resourcefulness” or, for a professor of anatomy, “torches [that] symbolize life…and death…”

Many names mentioned in this book should ring familiar: Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane, William Butler Yeats, and Edward Burne-Jones to name a few. Equally varied are the mediums used to create the bookplates. Bookplates were etched, engraved, and created with pen, pencil, ink, and photogravure.

No matter the medium, each is a work of art. Many, particularly the woodcuts and wood engravings, include almost unimaginable detail, and some show wit and a sense of humor, as well. Stephen Gooden’s bookplate for Dr. Ethel M. Luce-Clausen depicts an owl clutching a book with its talons and a rat in its mouth. Luce-Clausen was a scientist who often experimented with rats and “she had stipulated that the artist [Gooden] should not include a rat in the bookplate”. Gooden’s response to the rat that is front and center of this plate: “the rat crept in when I wasn’t looking”. 

As the most recent plate featured in Ex Libris was created in 1979, we will never be able to peruse any of these readers’ bookshelves; however, by studying the plates and reading the narratives found in this book, we can certainly find some interesting insights into each of the plates’ owners.

Hopkinson describes a bookplate as “a miniature work of art”. His book contains 100 works of art; many of which have never been published before. Perhaps then we could, and should, argue that Ex Libris is a miniature museum.

Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates


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