Sunday, October 18, 2009
Barking Bookplates I
(Reprinted with permission from “Bark”, Summer ’04)
In the 16th century, hounds, whippets and books were the SUVs and diamonds of European nobility – these most visible badges of affluence, prized by owners, are now esteemed by collectors the world over for their identifying tags and labels.
Safeguarding and identifying such cherished possessions as a hound or a Bible in the Middle Ages crated a new métier for artists and artisan. The need for a metal collar or a customized bookplate became occasion to decorate and adorn. Thus, a miniature art from emerged. A coat of arms might embellish a metal collar or become the ornamentation on a newly acquired manuscript.
While countless tapestries show the ornate wide collars of the hounds, the 550-year-old history of the emblem of identification known as the ex libris, or bookplate, is less well-known.
Primarily a European phenomenon, bookplates evolved from coats of arms to become far more illustrative labels. Usually placed on the inside front cover of a book, the words ex libris (meaning “from the books of …”) would be printed or scripted, followed by the owner’s name or signature along with a design or image – together forming a kind of monogram, or a literary tattoo. Within a framework of several inches, these delightful, expressive paper rectangles often told a story or held a secret. And in every period of plate making, one can find canine images. Pedigreed patricians, humorous mongrels and specific pets are all represented.