One of my favorite things about being a bookseller the past dozen years has been the various Ex Libris bookplate art i have found in my antique books. Here’s an article from Simon Rose about bookplates.
Sometimes ex libris is more valuable than the book containing it
Ex libris, meaning ‘from the library of’, or ‘from the books of’ is a Latin expression concerning the artform of bookplates – stamps or labels inside books that identify the owner. Ex libris bookplates range from the simple to the decorative and elaborate, the obscure or even bizarre and surreal.
Noble families often used a personal coat of arms or crest, frequently featuring a family motto in their native language or Latin. Naturally, the styling of bookplates changed over time, but most reflected the decorative styles of the day. A vast array of illustrations feature on bookplates – dragons, angels, trophies, animals, birds, children, musical instruments, weapons, floral displays, trees, plants, landscapes and much more.
The modern study and collection of bookplates began around 1860. They are very often of high interest, exceeding that of the book in which they are placed. They are valued for their historical interest as examples of art from a particular time period, but also if they belonged to famous people.
The idea of mass ownership of books (and hence the need for bookplates denoting ownership) appeared shortly after the first printed books in the fifteenth century. The earliest known examples are from Germany, where they were made in large numbers before the concept spread internationally. Consequently, these examples are often of the deepest aesthetic interest for collectors and art historians. The oldest recorded bookplate dates from around 1450.
(This angelic design from Germany, known as the ‘Gift-plate of Hildebrand Brandenburg of Biberach to the Monastery of Buxheim’, dates from around 1480 – via)
In France the oldest ex libris yet discovered is that of one Jean Bertaud de la Tour-Blanche from 1529, while the oldest example from England belonged to Sir Nicholas Bacon, a politician during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and Francis Bacon’s father. It served as a gift plate for books he presented to the University of Cambridge before his death in 1579.
The earliest plates from Holland and Italy are dated to 1597 and 1622 respectively. Examples were common in many parts of Europe in the seventeenth century, and the earliest known American example is the plain printed label of John Williams from 1679.
Bookplates appeared in other parts of the world as well. Below is an example attributed to Shah Jahan of the Mughal dynasty era in India in 1645:
(fragments, see the whole art here)
The image below left was also clearly inspired by the culture and prevailing iconography of the Indian subcontinent, while the ex-libris below right shows a great executioner design which served as a warning to respect the book’s ownership or face drastic consequences:
Heraldic designs were commonly used for decoration, as shown in this plate from England:
The plate below left was produced in America in 1905; it has some heraldic elements, but also incorporates a house in an elegant frame. The example in the right is none other than George Bancroft’s bookplate complete with a signature, taking inspiration from Ancient Greece. “Eis phaos” translates as “Towards the light.”
Samuel Hollyer made his own bookplate in 1896 (below left), but mentions Hogarth and is in the style of the eighteenth century. On the right is the great design for Jane Patterson, from 1890:
Artist Amy Sacker designed many bookplates for her clients in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
The specimen below right dates from 1953, and features a monk at the foot of a tree which bears books as well as leaves on the branches. Right image is a wonderful depiction of a skeleton playing the cello, from 1909:
These excellent examples of bookplates all date from the first half of the twentieth century:
Historical personalities and celebrities, politicians, movie stars, athletes and even some of the more infamous figures of history have all used bookplates as well.
Former French president Charles de Gaulle’s bookplate proudly displays the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of the Free French Forces during World War Two (below left). Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister, used a bookplate that reflected his passion for sailing (middle), and Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister in the inter war period (right):
This one on the left, dating from around 1907, belonged to the last Czar of Russia, the unfortunate Nicholas II. Upper right shows Queen Victoria’s bookplate looking suitably regal with a coat of arms while lower right shows the bookplate of the Swedish and Norwegian King Oscar II –
George Washington’s bookplate incorporates his familial coat of arms, and was engraved in London to his specifications in 1792 (below left). Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution, was also a renowned engraver and a designer of silverware, and had his own unique artwork for use with his book collection (below right):
Charles Dickens, well-known of course as a writer of books, had his own bookplates for the volumes in his personal collection (left image). Jack London’s bookplate looks ideal for placing inside his own novels, such as Call of the Wild or White Fang (on the right):
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, had a suitably grand design pasted into his book collection:
(Ex-libris on the right is dated 1909, via)
The bookplate belonging to Sigmund Freud contains a nude figure (below left). Jack Dempsey, world champion heavyweight boxer in the 1920s, enter the fray on the right:
Benito Mussolini, the infamous Italian dictator, needs no introduction and these are two of the bookplates that he commissioned in the mid ’30s:
Greta Garbo famously declared that she just wanted to be alone… probably with plenty of books for company, all displaying her own distinctive label (left image). Douglas Fairbanks Jr, was born in New York, but had a very aristocratic British style to his bookplate (right image):
The bookplate of Harpo Marx features a caricature of himself (top left). Charles Chaplin used this bookplate in his personal library (middle). Other Hollywood celebrities who had their own bookplates include Cecil B. de Mille, and Bing Crosby:
Some vintage ex libris art had an amazing amount of detail, comparable with paintings and engravings of the period:
(Bookplate circa 1814, 1907, designed for Franz James Mankiewicz – image via)