Where did bookplates come from?
Anne Fine examines bookplates through the ages
I remember seeing my very first bookplate down in the murky (and rather frightening) cellar of the house my family moved to when I was eight. Deep in the shadows lay a battered old trunk. My father prised off the lock and lifted the lid. Inside were heaps of musty old books, and, opening the first, I saw pasted inside the front cover a large black and white label. It was an engraving of a massively fancy and impressive family coat of arms. Across the top was written Ex Libris Viscount Molesworth.
Ex libris is Latin for "from the books of..." (or "out of the library of...."). And in the days when books were rare and precious, anyone who owned them would want to take particular care that, if they were lent, or borrowed, or taken away by mistake, there was the best chance of them finding their way home again.
Bookplates fell out of fashion as books became more common, less expensive and easier to replace. But there's a long tradition of using them - about four hundred years. There is even a Bookplate Society who know all there is to know about bookplates and the people who designed them or used them. (The Society's details are at the end of this article.)
Nobles and gentry (like my Viscount Molesworth) often used their own coats of arms. Frequently the family name or family motto was scrolled along the bottom, either in Latin or English. Styles changed through the ages, but most of the old bookplates, from Jacobean through to Victorian and Edwardian, appear stunningly fancy and complicated compared with a lot of the ones we have on our bookplates pages, reflecting the decorative styles of their ages.
Once you start looking, you'll see what a huge range of things show up over and over on bookplates: dragons, cherubs, trophies, animals, festoons, weapons, wreaths, trees, ribbons, landscapes, floral sprays. I could go on and on.
Many very famous artists have enjoyed designing bookplates for themselves, or for others. (The bookplate Aubrey Beardsley made for Mr Pollitt shows a nice fat naked lady with her bottom towards us, taking a book from a tray, and bookplates can easily have puns or jokes tucked away in the picture or the wording.)
Lots of people collect them. Some go for one particular artist or style. Some look for bookplates of the royal or famous. You might look especially for owls, lions, children or musical instruments - anything.
One of the great pleasures of charity shops and jumble sales has always been peeking inside the front of really dull-looking old books you're sure that no one will ever read again, and finding a bookplate, often with a name written on it, that sets you wondering . . . wondering . . . It doesn't happen often, but just enough to keep you hoping.
So, when you print off your favourite bookplate from our collection and paste it in the next book that you've decided to put in your Home Library, remember that, a hundred years from now, somebody just like you might open your book and see it and start to wonder who you are, just like me down in the cellar that day thinking about that great reader, Viscount Molesworth.
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Last updated 30th January 2022