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How to ‘judge’ a book owner by their bookplate

We don’t really judge, but we can definitely get to know a lot about a book’s owner by their customised bookplate. Be it a serene library, a gridiron, or an allegorical herm — our research has shown there is a lot more to a simple design, especially when there are ‘curses’ involved!

Lluis Tembleque Teres

Librarian

23 March 2023

How many stories can a book tell us? Of course, those within its printed pages. But, what of its own story as an historical artefact? In this article, we look at one specific aspect — ownership, and how this was represented by using decorated bookplates.

A bookplate is a label with a printed design that is usually pasted inside the front cover of the book. They are sometimes called “ex libris”, Latin for “From the books of”. Bookplates — as we see them now — are said to have originated in 15th century Germany, indicating the ownership of the book, their social status, and/or their profession or interests. Bookplates have been also used to prevent theft — they can indeed be seen as the more mainstream descendants of the striking ancient and medieval book curses, warnings or threats added to early texts by scribes.

One of the earliest known book curses dates back to 7th century BCE from the library of Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq). From the Museum of London’s collection, an interesting ‘warning’ is one that belonged to Annesley T. Warre (c. 1861–1937), a ceramics collector. His bookplate — designed by Chambers Haldane MacFall, well-known British art critic and illustrator — features a medieval knight, the phrase “I think it’s good” in French and the message: “Borrowing is the scissors of friendship.” While not quite a curse, the message is definitely ominous.

Annesley T. Warre’s medieval knight bookplate (left) comes with a warning, while actor David Garrick makes it clear that a borrowed book is to be returned ASAP! (ID nos: LIB9880, 49.7-2)

Annesley T. Warre’s medieval knight bookplate (left) comes with a warning, while actor David Garrick makes it clear that a borrowed book is to be returned ASAP! (ID nos: LIB9880, 49.7/2)

Eighteenth century English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick was bit more polite, as his bookplate quotes from the fourth volume of the 17th century Menagiana: “The first thing that one must do when one has borrowed a book is to read it so that it can be returned as soon as possible.”

In the museum’s library, we have hundreds of examples of volumes with bookplates, each with its distinct character. We’ve selected some beautiful examples with interesting stories to tell.

Simply the crest

One of the earliest styles of bookplates would often include a coat of arms, armour, or a crest, among other family heritage iconography. For instance, King William IV simply put his official seal on his books, while the bookplates belonging to writer, art historian and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717–97), were more ornate and Jacobean in style.

That such bookplates were also considered a matter of prestige is evidenced from British psychic and author Harry Price (1881-1948) having adapted the family crest of a Denbighshire Price (ap Rhys) family, who were created baronets in 1904, into his own. Thus, “suggesting a link to a distinguished line”. His alterations included changing the Denbighshire Prices’ motto from ‘Vive ut vivas’ (‘Live life to the fullest’) to ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus’ (‘While we live, let us live’).

Picture perfect

Towards the end of the Victorian era, bookplates were seen as symbols of prestige, and stationers and booksellers started offering bookplate designs as an in-house service. This widened the style from family crests to reflect the book-owner’s profession or interests. Prominent artists were employed to design these bookplates, often inspired by their own work illustrating literary volumes. Such pictorial bookplates often included landscapes, portraits, or even their library/study.

Solicitor and book collector James P.R. Lyell (1871–1948) is an inquisitive reader in his well-stocked library, as the motto above quite appropriately states ‘I will either find a way or make one’ in Latin. Other stunning library representations in the museum’s collection includes those of A.E. Pain (interestingly, with a sum on a board above him – does that mean he was a mathematician or keen on math?), and John Hunter’s idyllic library is an invitation for readers to enter the cosy space, somewhat reminiscent of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi’s paintings of empty rooms.

On the other hand, architectural draughtsman and art historian Gilbert R. Redgrave’s bookplate is full of complex symbolism, seemingly inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s prints. The male figure is engrossed in a book, while Death casually turns the pages. A child and a cat sit reading on the side, in a studio littered with books. Outside, it’s a beautiful spring-like landscape.

In lawyer and book collector R.N. Green-Armytage’s bookplate — illustrated by the well-known artist G.H. Holloway — can you spot the barrister’s wig, the classical literary works and references to theatre?

A more modern, 20th-century depiction of interests is in Marian Kohn-Speyer’s bookplate — one of the two representations of a female reader/book owner in our collection. A journalist and interior designer, Kohn-Speyer’s daughter Audrey explains that the bookplate’s design brings together her mother’s life-long passions: music, writing, drawing, books (which she collected), and architecture. Notice how Kohn-Speyer cleverly juxtaposes a north-African traditional building with a Modernist construction — both examples of minimalistic and rational design.

The other female figure from our collection to have her own bookplate is Lady Dorothy Mary Gladstone, an illustrious figure in establishing district nursing services, a hostel for nurses at Victoria Station and was president of the Women’s Liberation Federation in 1938. She was married to Herbert John Gladstone, son of four-time British Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone. The illustration on her plate provides an escape from the chaotic world of politics that she was intensely associated with. The quote ‘Never withering banks of flowers’ is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, King of Britain, act V, scene IV.

Of symbolism and allegory

While some of the above instances might include clues to the book owner’s interests, the museum’s collection also has many examples of bookplates that have direct references to their professions and others that are more allegorical in design.

(from left) Bookplates of archaeologist J.F.S. Stone; designer Hardy Amies; and musicologist William C. Smith (1881–1972), an expert on Handel, and Assistant Keeper at the British Museum — all seen in the design. (ID nos.: LIB3916; 2002.139/61; LIB6203)

Of professions and interests

(from left) Bookplates of archaeologist J.F.S. Stone; designer Hardy Amies; and musicologist William C. Smith (1881–1972), an expert on Handel, and Assistant Keeper at the British Museum — all seen in the design. (ID nos.: LIB3916; 2002.139/61; LIB6203)

For instance, British archaeologist J.F.S. Stone (1899-1957) specialised in Stonehenge, so it’s not surprising to see the London skyline through the silhouetted arches of this prehistoric world heritage site. With the ancient world framing the modern, it’s a metaphor for history itself.

Savile Row designer and clothier to Queen Elizabeth II, Hardy Amies (1909-2003) chose a bookplate that reflected all aspects of his life, with the fitting motto “less than art, more than trade”.

Another London designer and artist, Pickford Waller (1849–1930) commissioned his protégé Austin Osman Spare to design his bookplate, even though Waller designed bookplates himself. Influenced by Art Nouveau, Spare’s design is loaded with sexual symbolism that was popular among the homosexual circles in Edwardian London. The image represents the classical god Pan as a herm, a sculpture used for protection. A playfully positioned branch replaces anatomical details with a touch of mischief.

Bookplates of artist Pickford Waller (left) and actor-comedian Barry Lupino have interesting symbolisms incorporates in the design. (ID nos: LIB4585; LIB12117b)

The hidden elements

Bookplates of artist Pickford Waller (left) and actor-comedian Barry Lupino have interesting symbolisms incorporates in the design. (ID nos: LIB4585; LIB12117b)

Actor and comedian in prominent Pantomimes, Barry Lupino (1884–1962) had a mysterious design as the main motif in his bookplate. It was not until a chance visit to the Museum of Norwich by the author shed light on the fact that a lead boundary plate from St Lawrence’s parish had a similar motif, a gridiron that symbolises St Lawrence’s martyrdom. St Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, which would explain Lupino’s choice for his bookplate, where drama and comedy subtly meet.

Incidentally, St Lawrence is also the patron of students, archivists and librarians!

While bookplates are still commercially available, the interest is limited to die-hard book lovers. Are you one such person? What motifs would you favour in yours — one that represents your heritage, your profession or maybe your passion? Tweet out to us @museumoflondon and let us know!