Why bookplates speak volumes


A decorative label stuck inside a book with the owner’s name on it – an ex libris bookplate – can tell a lot about its history. But why are they so hard to find, asks MARY LELAND

IN THE introduction to his pictorial history of British bookplates, the late Brian North Lee, founder of the English Bookplate Society, states: “There have always been areas of research largely left to the amateur, and bookplate history is one of them.”

Sitting at the kitchen table of antiquarian Lesley Roberts in Carrigaline, Co Cork, I accept my amateur status. Roberts, whose own ex libris sits precisely on the inside board of British Bookplates by North Lee, does not pretend to any particular expertise, but he is hardly an amateur.

My quest for bookplates stemmed from the simple need to mark the grandchildren’s books as possessions to protect and in which to take some pride. Although possibly without the incentive of grandchildren, this has been the reason for bookplates ever since books themselves were printed. North Lee gives 1574 as the first recorded British plate (for Nicolas Bacon, father of the more famous Sir Francis), while their use in Germany began circa 1470.

Greater expertise in copper engraving emerged, according to North Lee, at the right moment for the utility of the bookplate “to be matched with a beauty which scholars and book-lovers would find hard to resist”.

Throughout the world, it seems, there are believers in theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig’s statement that “a bookplate is to the book what a collar is to the dog”.

But bookplates are a problem for academic libraries as they can’t be stored separately from the books they enhance. One solution is to catalogue them, and at UCC, Julian Walton is compiling a database of plates at the Boole Library, where Cronan Ó Doibhlin, head of Special Collections, explains that this catalogue will be a digital project enhancing information on the provenance of the books themselves.

In her review of Edward Martin’s Dictionary of Bookplates of Irish Medical Doctors (2003), Muriel McCarthy, Keeper of Marsh’s Library in Dublin, mentions two major Irish groups, the William Chamney collection and the Neville Wilkinson collection at the Genealogical Office in the National Library on Dublin’s Kildare Street, and notes a small collection in the Cuala Press archive in Trinity College.

The British Museum is digitising its standard-setting Franks collection with the help of Toronto University; there is an American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers – Paul Revere was an engraver and had his own plate – and the worldwide spread of interest has led to the formation of the International Federation of Bookplate Societies.

Several American universities have bookplate collections and in Canada’s McGill University, the Philippe Masson ex libris file numbers 4,500 items.

Although the internet offers custom-made plates and labels from designers abroad and the UK’s My Home Library website has bookplate designs for children by Shirley Hughes, Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury, what annoyed me most when searching, fruitlessly, for a source of gift bookplates in Ireland was that no retailer I approached understood what I wanted.

Seeing Lesley Roberts shower examples of his own collection onto his kitchen table relieved the fear that I was on some spectral mission, a feeling enhanced by my discovery in a second-hand green-cover Penguin edition of The Long Divorceby Edmund Crispin – still marked at 2/6 – the ex libris of Alexander Magri MacMahon, slightly crooked and on the title page.

It was like meeting, suddenly and with a shock of pleasure, the friend of a friend. This plate was designed by Elizabeth Friedlander, intimate of Gerald and Sheila Goldberg in Cork and for years MacMahon’s lover. Son of an Italian father and an Irish mother, MacMahon left Italy when Mussolini came to power.

He began an academic career in London where he met Friedlander, a German Jewish typographer forbidden by the Nazis to practice her profession.

A gifted violinist and graphic designer, she had fled first to Italy and then to England, where she worked as a housemaid until taken on to design the Classics series for Penguin Books. She and Alexander remained together for the rest of their lives and settled finally in Kinsale, Co Cork, where he died in 1981 and she in 1983.

This bookplate seemed to complete a circle – MacMahon, Friedlander, the Goldbergs – and also seemed to approve my choice of detective novel, implying that MacMahon had liked this book well enough to put his own seal on it.

Wanting a seal myself some years ago, I had a bookplate designed by the painter and musician Colm Murphy and use this still, while Lesley Roberts had his crisp-edged plate designed by Stanley Reese. Explaining that Reese was “the only artist I could find who did copperplate engraving”, Roberts creates a small avalanche of fossils and documents as he searches for the copper plate itself.

Finding it, he describes the process, the meaning of “recess printing” and the tiny incision of the designer’s initials in the mantling flowing from the helmet crest. This leads to an instructive digression into those days when armoured commanders in the field could only be identified by the bearings on banners and shields. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father is described as wearing his beaver up he is, according to the dictionary in The Manual of Heraldry, making sure his face can be seen.

Jack B Yeats was one of those artists who, like Holbein and Durer long before him, created bookplates; the revived 20th century interest in woodcuts and calligraphy brought another flourish to plates and to their almost equally collectable siblings, book labels.

Signatures were not common, but Muriel McCarthy notes that in 1903 the Dun Emer Press advertised that “Bookplates as special orders are also taken” (at £3-10-0 per 500) and she adds: “Jack B Yeats in his charming A Little Book of Bookplates (Dalkey, 1979) showed 12 bookplates for various people including Lennox Robinson, John Quinn and Lily Yeats.”

Sifting though his own sheaves, Lesley Roberts remarks that the motto for Lady Gregory’s plate (“fairly hideous, really”) incorporates a pun on her maiden name, Persse, while her sister Arabella Waitman has a simple and strong drawing by Lady Gregory’s son Robert. Eva Gore Booth has a windblown figure with a motto in ornamented Gothic script, but Katherine Ross “Her Book” shows her house, Dunmoyle and a scroll with a verse; house names and numbers were reminders of where to return a borrowed book.

Clonbrock House in Co Galway may be a burned out ruin now, but the plate of Luke Gerald Dillon, 4th Baron Clonbrock, has its coat of arms surrounded by the Order of St Patrick. The ex libris of D H Kelly, The O’Kelly, has its motto in Irish – Ta Dia Dom Cor Laidir while Edward MacLysaght of Doneraile announces his ownership with the words “Is le Eamonn Mac Giollaiasachta an leabhar seo”.

A recent book auction by Purcells of Birr, Co Offaly, included J M Synge’s book The Aran Islands, illustrated by Jack B Yeats: one of a limited first edition, it also carried the bookplate Yeats had designed for its owner, Madeline Jones. The book, plate and all, went for €6,800.

Those of us who cannot distinguish between our mullets and our martlets, our crests and our torses, know that a personal bookplate can represent our ideals, our professions, our obsessions. James P Keenan has published a Catalogue of World Ex Libris Artists(2000).

“It’s a little bit of immortality, really,” says Lesley Roberts as he guesses hopefully that his own scroll, Post Funera Virtus, means that virtue survives the grave.

With the dawning of the e-book, the bookplate could be the assertion of the significance, not of the owner of the book, but of the written word and its messages from another time.

Elizabeth Friedlander was forbidden to earn her living as a typographer or to use her font; her bookplate for Alexander Magri MacMahon includes his motto in Latin: “Let no man be a slave who can be free”.

British Bookplates, by Brian North Lee (David Charles, London, 1979), and similar books are available on Amazon.co.uk

A bookplate or an ex libris (Latin for “out of the library of”) is a decorative label stuck in the front of a book, bearing the name of the book’s owner. They have existed since approximately the invention of printing in the 15th century.

Usually the phrase “Ex Libris” and a graphic as well as the bookowner’s name are used. Ex libris are often masterpieces of miniature art featuring designs that can tell you about a bookowner’s interests, job, place or date of birth.

Hard to find in stationery shops, there are a number of places where they can be ordered online: