Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Regarding Bookplates I
Ralph Fletcher Seymour
It is a pleasant experience, on opening a book, to find a bookplate on the inside cover. On such an occasion the discoverer is predisposed in their favor, as he holds in his eager hands a book, a veritable mirror of life, and the label is in its way a more or less bright mirror of the owner’s life. Bookplates are, in this way, a pleasant episode, much like a lovely landscape seen in the course of a long trip, and remain a half defined but pleasant help to the business of living thru the day.
It has become the custom to elaborate a simple label by enriching the design with items expressive of the taste, personality or fancy of the owner. This procedure should make a more beautiful and desirable thing out of a plain and serviceable label. It, first of all, should set forth the owner’s name, perhaps his residence, and may serve to inform the observer of the profession, avocation or special interests of the possessor, thus becoming a contribution to the book in which they appear. Realizing so glorious a destiny is not one of the smallest of achievements for few things which crows into the pages of a book actually have earned so fair a distinction, but bookplates have been used for hundreds of years and, like old wine and old friends, have arrived at a spiritual development both precious and rare.
At the time of their origin they, in a measure, filled the place of those painted and carved covers or bindings which bore the coat of arms, initials, or other emblem of the owner. They became a feature in books when printing became the handmaid of democracy and books were no longer written by scribes in exclusive scriptoriums for rich churches or for great nobles. The earliest known bookplate came from Germany. It is a woodcut of a hedgehog among flowers possibly the author’s playful picturegraph of himself among his books. All the early ones were either etched on copper or cut in wood and, printed on paper, were pasted on the first page of books or on the inside front cover if the books were in permanent bindings. At that date they were mostly armorial designs the “Ex Libris” did not appear nor that matter did the name of the owner often show.
Germany, France and England in manner typical of their natures, developed their own design in bookplates. A hundred years or so ago they were all engraved or etched and there are periods in their development as there are styles of architecture, ships, and armorials. I could never feel more than a weak enthusiasm for the typical engraved armorial bookplate: the idea of personality lost in the family, which these plates presented, gave a minimum of hope to the creative artist, although there are occasional fine plates such as George W. Eve used to design, dignified and well proportioned, with finely handled shields, mantling, ribbons and lettering.