By John Dorfman
Bookplates are tiny marvels of the printmaker’s art, and a fascinating adjunct to rare-book collecting.
“No book-collector should be without a book-plate, and a book-plate once inserted in a volume should never be removed,” wrote the great American book collector A. Edward Newton in his 1918 book The Amenities of Book-Collecting. “When the plate is that of a good collector, it constitutes an indorsement, and adds a certain interest and value to the volume.” Of course, Newton wasn’t referring to those little mass-produced paste-down labels with a blank space in which to write your name; by “bookplate” (the hyphen got dropped sometime between 1918 and today) he meant a custom-designed engraved or lithographed print, usually pictorial, that somehow encapsulates the interests and personality of the collector, and usually incorporates that person’s name in a calligraphic way. And while a bookplate may indeed “add interest and value to the volume,” many of them are of great interest and value in themselves and are collected for and by themselves, without being attached to any book.
Some major figures in art history have created bookplates, from Albrecht Dürer and Paul Revere to Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Among 20th-century printmakers, Walter Crane, Eric Gill, Lucien Pissarro and Rockwell Kent are standouts. Certain artists, such as the Gilded-Age Americans Edwin Davis French and J. Winfred Spenceley, are known primarily for their work in the bookplate line. In any case, it’s important to realize that bookplates are miniature works of art, and that they often pack an amazing amount of graphic interest and detail into a necessarily small space. (While some showy bookplates made for wealthy collectors are oversized, 5 x 7 inches or larger, most measure around 2 x 3 to 3 x 4 inches.)
Bookplates are believed to have originated in 15th-century Germany; the first known example, made for a collector named Johannes Knabensberg, is a crude woodcut of a hedgehog below a banner of lettering containing a humorous reference to the man’s nickname of “Igler” (German for hedgehog). For centuries, most bookplates were simple designs consisting mainly of a coat of arms and the owner’s name. But in the latter part of the 19th century, there was a flowering of bookplate creativity. As an increasing number of affluent collectors began to amass rare-book libraries, a taste for elaborately illustrated, highly individualistic luxury bookplates developed. Instead of woodcuts, these tended to be labor-intensive copperplate engravings, etchings or lithographs, sometimes printed with colored inks on special paper stocks.
By the 1890s, a veritable bookplate craze was on. People were commissioning plates as independent works of art, without any intention of gluing them into a book; instead, they planned to show them off to fellow collectors and even swap them like trading cards. Thomas G. Boss, a book dealer in Salem, Mass., who has a specialty in bookplates, says, “The bookplate craze parallels the poster craze of the ’90s, but it went on longer, almost until the Depression. A lot were made to be traded with friends, which led to bookplates making the transition to being social lubricants and then to being works of art.” They were expensive works of art; the cost could run to $200—a hefty amount around 1900—and most collectors commissioned far more than one design. They also went in for special-edition printings, sometimes on large paper with the impression of the copper plate showing. These proof printings are still prized by collectors today. Occasionally the artist would place a “remarque,” a sort of bonus such as an tiny extra illustration in the margin, on a special edition.
In the U.S., the old and new rich alike went in for ornate, busy designs that sometimes recall banknote engravings (or for today’s viewers, maybe tattoo art), replete with architectural-looking elements and scrolls framing imaginary scenes that summarize the various business and collecting interests of the patron. Nautical, medical and angling are among the most popular themes. The master of this style was E.D. French of Massachusetts, a meticulous craftsman famous for his “Chippendale shell” motif and for a command of technique and composition that makes his plates unmistakable. French is also known for his institutional bookplates, crafted for libraries, universities and clubs. “Institutional plates are a good collecting area,” observes Boss. “They’re sometimes looked down on because of being library plates, so they tend to be less expensive, but some of the designs are great. Nearly all the designers have done institutional plates.” Boss points to a bookplate made for the Boston Athenaeum, a private library, by the great 20th-century American wood engraver Rudolph Ruzicka and printed in a rich red color, as well as to French’s plate for the Union League Club in New York, which shows the interior of the club in receding perspective.
In the ’teens and ’20s, the vivifying breath of modernism touched the bookplate world, and the design loosened up considerably, particularly in Europe but also in America. There are German Expressionist bookplates, English white-on-black wood-engraved bookplates, Cubist bookplates, erotic bookplates, and more. Elaborate conceits and intricate curlicues gave way to simpler, often whimsical creations. The English theater designer Gordon Craig made a plate for his friend Kitty Downing that used a graceful seated feline to visually pun on her name. Jack London’s bookplate, by Ernest James Cross, consists solely of a staring wolf’s head framed by a pair of snowshoes (this scarce plate was photo-reproduced in large quantities about 20 years ago, so buyers should beware and check that the paper stock is cream-colored instead of white). The artist and book illustrator Rockwell Kent, one of the most prominent American designers of American bookplates during the 1930s and ’40s, favored white lettering on a black background, with his trademark bold, striving human figures reaching for the stars or relaxing beneath trees.
There was a proliferation of national styles, and to this day there is a strong element of nationalism in bookplate collecting—Americans tend to favor American plates, Italians Italian plates, and so on. The variety of styles and media is immense: Some are calligraphic, with lettering only; there are leather bookplates with gilt stamping (which are highly prized but have a tendency to decay and leave stains on books), one-off hand-drawn or hand-painted bookplates, and more. An excellent book just published by Yale University Press, Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates, by Martin Hopkinson ($15), shows a diverse selection of bookplates from the collection of the British Library, some of which have never been reproduced before.
Even though the “craze” is over, interest in collecting and even designing bookplates revived in the 1970s and has stayed vigorous ever since. Today, the field is filled with opportunities at reasonable prices that make them particularly appealing to print collectors. “You’d have to have pretty deep pockets to get a sizable collection of Rockwell Kent prints,” says collector Lew Jaffe, a retired pharmaceutical salesman from Philadelphia and author of the blog “Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie” (firstname.lastname@example.org). “But bookplates are delicate, miniature prints, though they’re not often thought of that way, and they are affordable.” Prices go from less than a dollar to several thousands of dollars. Historical associations and the fame of the owner matter, in addition to aesthetic factors. An authenticated George Washington bookplate (a not very interesting armorial design) would command about $3,000–5,000, depending on condition. Paul Revere bookplates also go for four-figure prices. Top-quality twentieth-century plates tend to sell in the low to mid-hundreds.
The best sources are antiquarian book dealers, fellow collectors and Ebay. “Ebay has been a blessing for all kinds of collectors because you never know who is going to put what up there,” says Jaffe. “I hate to say so because I have mixed feelings about it, but Ebay is a very good source.” Jaffe also recommends getting to know the few remaining old-fashioned hand bookbinders, who tend to come across a wide variety of old books and paper ephemera. “If you meet them and tell them what you’re interested in,” he says, “they might have a cigar box to show you.”
As for fellow collectors, the subculture of bookplate trading is still quite active and represents an excellent way of finding scarce examples, since collectors often want to trade away duplicates. Jaffe says, “It’s very gratifying to sit over a table with someone and look over his or her duplicates and barter a bit.” Boss goes one step further with his advice: “Get your own bookplate made, and then other people will want it and trade you.”