Bookplates, also called ex libris, have been pasted to the inside front covers of books since the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. Though they were also used in public libraries, I find these small printed works most interesting when they are used by individuals to assert ownership over their prized works of literature. The Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collection holds some excellent examples of these very personalised prints, which still enjoy a very enthusiastic fan base!
This plate was designed by Charles William Sherborn, who was a founding member and vice-president of the Ex Libris Society. This group of enthusiastic bookplate collectors was a precursor of The Bookplate Society, which still holds regular meetings in London. A portrait of Mr. Ashbee can be seen between an image of an ash tree and an actual bee – a clever visual reference to his name.
Bookplate of General Owen Williams, Charles William Sherborn, 1894. Museum number E.2157-1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sherborn is also credited with creating a resurgence of interest in heraldic bookplates, which hearken back to the earliest days of ex libris production. The earliest known bookplates were printed in Germany between 1450 and 1470. At this time, only the very wealthy were able to afford books, so they took great pride in labelling them as their own. In aristocratic circles, a coat of arms was as easily recognized as a printed name, so most early bookplates featured heraldry. By the nineteenth century, this traditional imagery had been largely replaced with a wide variety of motifs. Portraits were common, as were landscapes, animals, depictions of libraries, and representations of poetry and music. However, Sherborn upheld the tradition, working in a style referred to by The Bookplate Society as ‘Golden Age Armorial.’
As might be expected for artworks intended to personalise an individual’s private property, many bookplates very closely reflect their owners’ interests. The above example features a music room, with well-stocked bookcases, a keyboard instrument, and works by Schuman and Wagner on the floor.
Lady Wernher, who commissioned the above bookplate, seems to have wanted her ornithological interests emphasised. A flock of birds can be seen flying above the landscape, just under the word ‘Birdie’ encircled by a decorative frame. A scroll across the top and right hand side of the bookplate endearingly reads ‘My Silent But Faithful Friends are They.’
Alfred Harmsworth, on the other hand, seems to have been more interested in catching wildlife, as demonstrated by his angling-themed bookplate. A frame of reeds and caught fish surrounds a riverside scene, under which rest a selection of books. Tellingly, the one that has been left open is Isaac Walton’s The Complete Angler.
In case your thoughts have turned to how you might personalise your own library, I will leave you with some further inspiration. What can you deduce about the owners of each of these bookplates? Which of your own qualities would you want to immortalise in print? These, as well as many additional bookplates, are available to view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.