Revisiting the Artful Bookplate

Ex-libris by József Faragó [1866-1906] via WikiCommons

Ex-libris by József Faragó [1866-1906] via WikiCommons

To most book-lovers, the ex-libris, or bookplate, is a cherished relic of the past. Bookplates were small labels that were pasted inside a book’s front cover to designate ownership. They flourished at a time when books were the foremost technology for transmitting information, when they were made to last a lifetime, and when they were considered so desirable a commodity that they were prone to being stolen. The first bookplates were made soon after the advent of printing, in Germany in the 15th century. Their popularity peaked in the late 19th century, and waned with the advent of mass publishing.

At the height of their popularity, bookplates inspired a whole genre of visual art, and today there’s a thriving collector’s market for it. The British Museum has just published a lavish book featuring the best of its ex-libris collection. Ex-Libris: The Art of the Bookplate, by Martin Hopkinson, covers the evolution of the bookplate from as far back as Albrecht Dürer. The museum boasts an enormous collection of bookplates bequeathed by 19th-century bachelor benefactor, antiquarian Augustus Wollaston Franks. The Guardian has feted the occasion with a picture gallery of some of the collection’s best bookplates.

Previously, especially in North America, ownership was often designated with book rhymes - here’s a popular example: Everytown is my dwelling-place, / America is my nation; / John Smith is my name / And Christ is my salvation.

The bookplate has a proud Australian heritage too. Australian bookplate designers of note include Norman and Lionel Lindsay, both celebrated exponents of the form, as were Adrian Feint and GD Perrottet. Irena Sibley continues to create bookplates for collectors today. In the first half of last century, Percy Neville Barnett dedicated most of his adult energies to Australian bookplates, and wrote more than 20 books on the subject. Here’s a gallery of Australian bookplates, courtesy of the Australian Bookplate Society website.

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