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17 Cool Old English Bookplates

In 1893, Egerton Castle published the second edition of his book English Book Plates, Ancient and Modern, which studied the history of the design of bookplates, or ex libris, the decorative plates placed in books—typically on the inside of the front cover—to indicate who the book belongs to. “Specimens occur in books printed as early as 1516, but in England, France, and Germany they became very popular in the last century,” Castle writes, noting that the trend was “likely to continue.” Many names you might recognize had plates in their books, and some were created by well-known artists of the day. Here are a few of the most beautiful.

1. DR. HECTOR POMER

This bookplate, “a model of early 16th-century book ownership device,” was designed for Doctor Hector Pomer, the last prior (a monk who is the head of a religious order) of St. Lawrence in Nuremberg, by the German artist Albrecht Dürer in 1521. In addition to his paintings, engravings, and woodcuts, Dürer also created natural history drawings for Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae Animalium (you can see his version of a rhinoceros here).

2. NICHOLAS BACON

Bacon gifted this “very handsome device” to the University of Cambridge in 1574. In addition to being the father of philosopher and scientist Francis, Bacon was, Castle writes, “an attorney of the Court of Wards and a Cambridge man [who] was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in the first year of her reign, and made Lord Keeper. He died in 1579.” It’s likely that this plate was also used to create Bacon’s personal bookplates, and that the color, date, and inscription were added for the gift plate.

3. SAMUEL PEPYS

This armorial bookplate, circa 1680, belonged to Samuel Pepys, a businessman, “right hand of the Navy,” and member of Parliament who might have coined the term. “As far as we know at present, the earliest approach to the word book-plate is discoverable in the ‘Diary of Mr. Samuel Pepys,’” Castle writes. On July 21, 1668, Pepys wrote in his famous diary that he “Went to my plate maker's and there spent an hour about contriving my little plates for my books of the King's four yards."

4. JOHN HENSLOW

John Henslow was Chief Surveyor of the British Navy who, in 1798, designed the 80-gun HMS Foudroyant. “This book device was composed, by the owner himself, probably between the years 1780 and 1790,” Castle writes. “[H]e was knighted in 1794. The plate, Castle notes, is emblematic of Henslow's profession: 

On the dexter side of the shield is seen a three-decker [ship] on stocks, ready for launching, with Jack (before the Union) on foremast, Standard (quartering France) on main, Admiralty flag on mizzen and White Ensign on stern staff. On the sinister side are shown sails, masts, tackle and other naval emblems, among which a sail, used as a scroll to display the owner's name.

5. JAMES COOK

According to Castle, this bookplate was probably not designed for James Cook, explorer and circumnavigator of the globe, but was likely made for his son, who was also named James Cook. “This ex libris is most interesting on many accounts although it seems never to have been used,” Castle writes, continuing:

The history of this plate itself is obscure. Captain Cook was killed at Hawaii, February 14th, 1779. On September 3rd, 1785, a coat of arms was granted to the family of which the following is a blazoning, very typical of the degraded heraldry which the College tolerated at that period. … The crest motto is Circa orbem” and the motto below the shield on the original is Nil intentatem reliquit.” ... No Captain Cook,” however, was living at the time of the grant, and consequently the plate could never have been used by the Cook of navigation fame. But his eldest son, James, a young naval officer of high promise, was appointed in the autumn of 1793 to the command of the Spitfire” sloop of war. 

Sadly, the young commander never got to use the wonderful book plate. According to Castle, “on January, 1794, his body was discovered on the beach of the Isle of Wight, under circumstances which pointed strongly to the suspicion of murder.”

6. HENRIETTA FRANCES

Henrietta Frances, Countess of Bessborough, adapted this visiting card into a book plate. Says Castle, “The design is to be thus interpreted: A Roman interior (according to the classic lights of the last century); Venus seated and holding a dove in one hand, the emblem of love, and in the other a flambant heart. It was designed by [Giovanni] Cipriani, engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, and ‘published’ by the latter in 1796.”

7. ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON

“As a rule, the only interest in ex libris of the [purely-armorial lines] depends on the personality of their owners,” Castle writes. “The coat of arms appertaining to our late Laureate, for instance, is certainly not in itself a thing of beauty … a mere crest resting on a simple torce, but with a well-known name under it, assumes, at once, a startling importance.”

8. CHARLES DICKENS

This striking bookplate had Dickens’s name underneath the lion.

9. WINDSOR CASTLE LIBRARY

This is Queen Victoria’s bookplate for the library at Windsor Castle; it was designed by someone named J. West and engraved by Mary Byfield, who, for more than 40 years, made woodcuts for books published by Chiswick Press.

10. FREDERICK LOCKER

“The author of London Lyrics, Mr. Frederick Locker-Lampson, has had a variety of book-plates drawn by well-known hands at different times for himself and his family,” Castle writes. Among them was this one, created by Kate Greenaway, a children’s book author and illustrator.

11. GLEESON WHITE

Artist, illustrator, and printer Charles Ricketts created this ex libris for Joseph Gleeson White, who wrote about art. As Ricketts explains to Castle,

The tree of Creation (Igdrasil) springs from a swirl of water and flame which breaks into little gems; the flame, continuing, flows through the trunk of the tree, which branches on each side into composite boughs suggesting the different plant kingdoms. This central flame envelopes the figure of man, placed in the midst of the tree in the act of awakening. The fruit on the eastern end of each bough represent in embryo the fish and water fowl, the reptile and creeping insects, the larger animals, and finally the creatures with wings. The rainbow shooting through the centre composition signifies the atmosphere; the two figures under one cloak in the lower part of the design represent night and day, i.e., the planets.

What could that possibly have to do with a bookplate? Well, explains White, “The tree, whether under this particular shape of Igdrasil in Scandinavian mythology, or under that of the Tree of Knowledge in the Mosaic tradition, has always been a favourite symbol for Literature. It is therefore a felicitous choice as an emblem of knowledge, eternal, yet needing daily nourishment, and ALWAYS GROWING. In fact, the various interpretations of this mystical tree are as all-embracing as literature itself.”

12. WALTER CRANE

This English artist and book illustrator (one of his early illustrations depicts the subject of Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott”) made his own bookplate. “I assume,” Castle writes, “that the two-handled wine jug stands for an initial W before the Crane. But it is also elaborately symbolic; and, with pen, pencil and palette, and the quatrain from the ‘Rubaiyat,’ descriptive of the owner's pursuits and literary tastes.”

13. EDMUND GOSSE

The American muralist and illustrator E.A. Abbey created this bookplate for Edmund Gosse, a British poet, author, and critic. “It represents a very fine gentleman of about 1610, walking in broad sunlight in a garden, reading a little book of verses,” Gosse wrote in Gossip in a Library. On bookplates, Gosse said that:

The outward and visible mark of the citizenship of the book-lover is his book-plate. There are many good bibliophiles who abide in the trenches and never proclaim their loyalty by a book-plate. They are with us but not of us; they lack the courage of their opinions; they collect with timidity or carelessness; they have no heed for the morrow. Such a man is liable to great temptations. He is brought face to face with that enemy of his species the borrower, and dares not speak with him in the gate. If he had a book-plate he would say, ‘Oh ! certainly I will lend you this volume, if it has not my book-plate in it; of course one makes it a rule never to lend a book that has!' He would say this, and feign to look inside the volume, knowing right well that this safeguard against the borrower is there already. To have a book-plate gives a collector great serenity and self-confidence.

14. HENRY IRVING

This feels like an appropriate book-plate for the stage actor who may have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “I think, Irving told Castle, “that [the bookplate] was designed by Bernard Partridge, though there is nothing of that bird in the composition. The occult meaning, so far as I know, there is none.

15. J.M. GRAY

J.M. Gray, curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, chose to feature the Tree of Wisdom in his bookplate. “Peering between the branches is seen the tempting combination of serpent body and female head,” Castle writes. “Seated at a table is also a monk … who is firmly resolved to keep his time well in hand and make good use thereof.”

16. H. RIDER HAGGARD

The Reverend W.J. Loftie created this bookplate for adventure novel author H. Rider Haggard. “It is meant to signify ‘H. Rider Haggard, the son of Ella, Lady of the House, makes an oblation to Thoth, the lord of writing, who dwells in the Moon,’” Castle writes. “It was, of course, intended to be jocular; but no doubt the device, composed by a recognized expert in such matters, will remain a most interesting token in connection with the author of She and of Cleopatra.”

17. DERMOT EARL OF MAYO

Lady Mayo herself drew this ex libris, which was engraved by Curwen of Dublin. The Latin inscription means “Salvation comes from the cross.” Included for the cute little kitty on top.

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