The printing press was a revolution for the written word. Its creation can be compared to the invention of the internet today. Besides the obvious good that came from being able to mass produce books, it also brought about a new art form that is often forgotten: the bookplate, a tiny piece of art used to claim ownership over a book.
In Yale University Press’s new book, Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates, Martin Hopkinson, former Curator of Prints at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, arranges a selection of 100 bookplates from the British Museum’s extensive collection. Already featured in NPR’s “Indie Booksellers Target Summer’s Best Reads”, and in an article for the Wall Street Journal explaining a few of the bookplates, such as Aubrey Beardsley’s beautiful art nouveau stylized print for John Lumsden Propert, the book takes its name from the inscription seen on most plates “Ex Libris,” meaning “from the book of.” As very personal marks of book ownership, bookplates were much less commercial and meant to appeal mainly to the owner. Because of this, many of the plates use a variety of imagery and symbols not usually seen together, and this use of odd combinations often formed puns on the owner’s name. For instance, William Harcourt Hooper’s woodcut bookplate for J.C. Brough shows a “jay” bird flying over a “sea” which is shown to “be rough”—literally “jay sea be rough.”
Looking at these bookplates as pieces of printed history, one can’t help but wonder if they can have a place in modern society. Although some may argue that the mass production of books has led to a decline in their worth and thus less of a need for intricate bookplates, perhaps the electronic world of books could benefit from such an art. In our present and crucial juncture in publishing methods, Hopkinson’s book reminds us of these images in a way that poses the issue of whether bookplates could be resurrected as graphic representations of ownership on e-readers. Definitely an important addition to any summer reading list, perhaps Ex Libris will also inspire you to create your own modern version of the bookplate.