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Bookplates As CollectiblesAuthor: Amelia MacSwiggan
(Article orginally published November 1957)
Early bookplates have long fascinated collectors, and over the years notable collections have been amassed by enthusiasts in England and in America. Outstanding examples have been accumulated by individuals, as well as historical societies, libraries, and museums, and the search is still on.
Described as a "mark of ownership" to be pasted in one's books, bookplates were constructed in the form of decorative labels. Some were made from engravings by prominent artists, some from prints and lithographs. Their values fluctuate for the dated and signed plates usually treble in value those of undated or unknown specimens. Those bearing the signatures of such engravers as Revere, Hurt, Doolittle, Batolozzi, Dawkins, Anderson, Turner, Collender, and Mountaine are much desired. Their importance relies principally on workmanship, design and fame of the original owner. It is unfortunate that many fine bookplates bear no marks of identification, and must rely on the similarity of design to that on the plates of known provenance for tentative identification.
Bookplates may be subdivided into various categories, allowing the collector a wide choice of collecting according to period, type, artist or engraver or other similar breakdown. From the 17th century on, decorative motifs changed frequently in fashion, with such styles as the armorial, the Jacobean, Chippendale, "Ribbon and Wreath," et cetera, popular in turn. Frequently artists used motifs found on the silverware and furniture of the period.
Of the distinct types of bookplates, the armorials were the earliest, and most plates fashioned prior to 1720 were of this style. These family crests were considered adequate marks of ownership for the private libraries of those whose crests were represented. Although the transition from the heraldic to the more ornate Jacobean plate was somewhat slow, this latter style was well established in England by 1700 and remained popular till about 1745. Jacobean plates had, generally, a heavy appearance, the escutcheon being combined with festoons of fruits or flowers resembling the pictorial art of the period. A man's bookplate in this style was usually composed with a shield, a lady's was fashioned with a lozenge. Backgrounds were all-over patterns of fish scale, brick or diapered motifs.
During the second half of the 18th century, the designs found on Chippendale styled bookplates resembled those being used on upholstery, furniture, and prints. It is to this period that the "urn" type bookplates belong; and designs of natural-looking flowers replaced the stiff garlands of the earlier Jacobean plates. It was in this Chippendale period, too, that the strict adherence to heraldic representation was broken by the use of straying flowers placed haphazardly across the shield, or by the interweaving of the curves of the frame into the center shield. In due time, these beautiful bookplates became over-ornamented and displayed a weakness of design, unbefitting the true Chippendale style.
"Wreath and ribbon" bookplates were in vogue in England around the 1770s. In this country they did not become popular much before 1790. They were considered a moderate return to lines of simplicity, a style very unassuming, yet somewhat pleasing. The shield was usually heartshaped with little or no carved work around it. They were frequently referred to as "Colonial Bookplates."
The earliest form of reproduction was made with wood-blocks. As early as the 6th century, the Chinese were familiar with this process and reproduced many fine paintings from their own wood blocks. The art was later introduced in other countries. Constant rubbings, however, wore off the carved relief designs on the wooden blocks, a disadvantage which eventually led to the invention of the copper plates which replaced them. Engraving designs on metal plates for transmission on paper began early in the 17th century.
Thomas Bewick, that famous London artist, produced many fine bookplates in the mid-17th century through the wood block medium. His birds and small animals were exceptionally fine. The wood blocks he made to illustrate Aesop's Fables, for instance, took him six years to complete. He tutored many in the art, and among these students who later became artists of note was Mark Lambert, whose excellently designed bookplates are also sought.
One of the better known engravers who made fascinating bookplates in this country was Nathaniel Hurd. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, February 13, 1730, he was taught the art of engraving as a boy by his silversmith father, Jacob Hurd. He worked principally in the Chippendale style on bookplates although he also made other types. The Boston Gazette of 1760 carried advertisements of his removal from one shop to another, with the advice to his clients that his engravings were "reasonably priced." One of his earliest and choicest bookplates, much cherished among collectors, was that made for Dr. Edward Agustus Holyoke, an eminent physician who lived to be over a hundred years old.
James Akin was another notable American bookplate engraver, as was Francis Kearney. Alexander Anderson was said to have been the first American wood engraver. When but a lad of twelve, he engraved the head of Paul Jones on a copper penny, and the first impression made from it was done in red oil paint. The picture was made through use of a crude press which he had fashioned himself. He also made numerous cuts of tiny ships and houses on type metal for newspaper illustrations. In course of time, he earned the title of the "American Bewick" because of the similarity of his small wood cuts to those of that noted Londoner.
There were many American engravers and makers of bookplates whose works are much admired by collectors today. Besides those already mentioned, sought-for plates were made by Annin and Smith, Bowen, Boyd, Collender, Dawkins, Dearborn, Doolittle, Furnass, Galludat, Godwin, Harris, Harrison, Hill, Jocelyn, Johnson, Maverick, Pelton, Revere, Rollinson, Smithers, Terry, and others. Among English notables, mention might be made of Bartolozzi and Mountaine as the most outstanding.
Fascinating verses often appeared on old bookplates. Although the majority of sayings were inserted therein to remind book borrowers what was expected of them, there were other verses used in a manner of mere pleasantry. A handbook of mottoes published many years ago by C. N. Elvin, contained suitable mottoes of all types, separated into different classes. Some of these were incorporated in Charles Dexter Allen's American Bookplates. This excellent book, by the way, contains many photographs of old bookplates, and presents the various styles of reproduction used by artists.
The bookplate collector may wish to specialize on one or more styles, or prefer to make a general collection to be later separated into such categories as his fancy dictates. Examples may be mounted in albums, or they may be mounted and labelled on uniform colored sheets of mounting paper and filed alphabetically or according to type, to artist, or to engraver. As the collection grows, the plates may be divided and subdivided under titles or names as well as dates of publications. Some collectors classify their bookplates as to their mottoes, under such headings as those taken from classical writings, from the Bible, or from specialized books of mottoes.