AskDefine | Define bookplate

Dictionary Definition

bookplate n : a label identifying the owner of a book in which it is pasted [syn: ex libris]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a printed piece of paper pasted on one of the pages of a book, most often on the inside front cover showing ownership, and thus preventing theft.


  • 2005 : By the bed there was a bookcase with old French novels, left-behind Frederick Forsyths, odd leather-bound volumes of history and memoirs with the coroneted Kessler bookplate. - Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty, (Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback edition, 259)


Extensive Definition

It was not before the 17th century that printed ex-libris became common in France. Up to that time, the more luxurious habit of blind- or gold-stamping the book's binding with a personal device had been more wide-spread. From the middle of the century, however, the ex-libris proper became quite popular; examples of that period are numerous, and, as a rule, very handsome. It may be here pointed out that the term "ex-libris," used as a substantive (Bucheignerzeichen in German, and sometimes written 'Exlibris' in one word) found its origin in France.


In many ways the consideration of the English book plate, in its numerous styles, from the late Elizabethan to the late Victorian period, is particularly interesting. In all its varieties it reflects with great fidelity the prevailing taste in decorative art at different epochs - as bookplates do in all countries. Of English examples, none thus far seems to have been discovered of older date than the gift plate of Sir Nicholas Bacon; for the celebrated, gorgeous, hand-painted armorial device attached to a folio that once belonged to Henry VIII, and now is located in the King's library, British Museum, does not fall in the category of book plates in its modern sense. The next is that of Sir Thomas Tresham, dated 1585. Until the last quarter of the 17th century the number of authentic English plates is very limited. Their composition is always remarkably simple, and displays nothing of the German elaborateness. They are as a rule very plainly armorial, and the decoration is usually limited to a symmetrical arrangement of mantling, with an occasional display of palms or wreaths. Soon after the Restoration, however, a book plate seems to have suddenly become an established accessory to most well-ordered libraries.
The first recorded use of the phrase book plate was in 1791 by John Ireland in Hogarth Illustrated. Book-plates of that period offer very distinctive characteristics. In the simplicity of their heraldic arrangements they recall those of the previous age; but their physiognomy is totally different. In the first place, they invariably display the tincture lines and dots, after the method originally devised in the middle of the century by Petra Sancta, the author of Tesserae Genlilitiae, which by this time had become adopted throughout Europe. In the second, the mantling assumes a much more elaborate appearance—one that irresistibly recalls that of the periwig of the period surrounding the face of the shield. This style was undoubtedly imported from France, but it assumed a character of its own in England.
As a matter of fact, from then until the dawn of the French Revolution, English modes of decoration in bookplates, as in most other chattels, follow at some years' distance the ruling French taste. The main characteristics of the style which prevailed during the Queen Anne and early Georgian periods are: ornamental frames suggestive of carved oak, a frequent use of fish-scales, trellis or diapered patterns, for the decoration of plain surfaces; and, in the armorial display, a marked reduction in the importance of the mantling. The introduction of the scallop-shell as an almost constant element of ornamentation gives already a foretaste of the Rocaille-Coquille, the so-called Chippendale fashions of the next reign. As a matter of fact, during the middle third of the century this rococo style (of which the Convers plate gives a typical sample) affects the book plate as universally as all other decorative objects. Its chief element is a fanciful arrangement of scroll and shell work with curveting acanthus-like sprays—an arrangement which in the examples of the best period is generally made asymmetrical in order to give freer scope for a variety of countercurves. Straight or concentric lines and all appearances of flat surface are studiously avoided; the helmet and its symmetrical mantling tends to disappear, and is replaced by the plain crest on a fillet. The earlier examples of this manner are tolerably ponderous and simple. Later, however, the composition becomes exceedingly light and complicated; every conceivable and often incongruous element of decoration is introduced, from cupids to dragons, from flowerets to Chinese pagodas. During the early part of George III.'s reign there is a return to greater sobriety of ornamentation, and a style more truly national, which may be called the urn style, makes its appearance. Book-plates of this period have invariably a physiognomy which at once recalls the decorative manner made popular by architects and designers such as Chambers, the Adams, Josiah Wedgwood, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. The shield shows a plain spade-like outline, manifestly based upon that of the pseudo-classic urn then very alive. The ornamental accessories are symmetrical palms and sprays, wreaths and ribands. The architectural boss is also an important factor. In many plates, indeed, the shield of arms takes quite a subsidiary position by the side of the predominantly architectural urn.
From the beginning of the 19th century, no special style of decoration seems to have established itself. The immense majority of examples display a plain shield of arms with motto on a scroll, and crest on a fillet. At the turn of the 20th century, however, a rapid impetus appears to have been given to the designing of ex libris; a new era, in fact, had begun for the book plate, one of great interest.
The main styles of decoration (and these, other data being absent, must always in the case of old examples remain the criteria to date) have already been noticed. It is, however, necessary to point out that certain styles of composition were also prevalent at certain periods. Although the majority of the older plates were armorial, there were always pictorial examples as well, and these are the quasi-totality of modern ones.
Of this kind the best-defined English genre may be recalled: the library interior—a term which explains itself—and book-piles, exemplified by the ex libris of W. Hewer, Samuel Pepys's secretary. We have also many portrait-plates, of which, perhaps, the most notable are those of Samuel Pepys himself and of John Gibbs, the architect; allegories, such as were engraved by Hogarth, Bartolozzi, John Pine and George Vertue; landscape-plates, by wood engravers of the Bewick school, &c. In most of these the armorial element plays but a secondary part.


Until the advent of bookplate collectors and their frenzy for exchange, the devising of book plates was almost invariably left to the routine skill of the heraldic-stationery salesman. Near the turn of the 20th century, the composition of personal book tokens became recognized as a minor branch of a higher art, and there has come into fashion an entirely new class of designs which, for all their wonderful variety, bear as unmistakable a character as that of the most definite styles of bygone days. Broadly speaking, it may be said that the purely heraldic element tends to become subsidiary and the allegorical or symbolic to assert itself more strongly.
Among early 20th-century English artists who have more specially paid attention to the devising of book plates, may be mentioned C. W. Sherborn, G. W. Eve, Robert Anning Bell, J. D. Batten, Erat Harrison, J. Forbes Nixon, Charles Ricketts, John Vinycomb, John Leighton and Warrington Hogg and Frank C. Papé. The development in various directions of process work, by facilitating and cheapening the reproduction of beautiful and elaborate designs, has no doubt helped much to popularize the book plate—a thing which in older days was almost invariably restricted to ancestral libraries or to collections otherwise important. Thus the great majority of plates of the period 1880-1920 plates were reproduced by process. Some artists continued to work with the graver. Some of the work they produce challenges comparison with the finest productions of bygone engravers. Of these the best-known are C. W. Sherborn (see Plate) and G. W. Eve in England, and in America J. W. Spenceley of Boston, Mass., K. W. F. Hopson of New Haven, Conn., and E. D. French of New York City.

Study and collection

Bookplates are very often of high interest (and of a value often far greater than the odd volume in which they are found affixed), either as specimens of bygone decorative fashion or as personal relics of well-known people.*Library classification


bookplate in Bulgarian: Екслибрис
bookplate in Catalan: Ex-libris
bookplate in Czech: Ex libris
bookplate in Danish: Ekslibris
bookplate in German: Exlibris
bookplate in Estonian: Eksliibris
bookplate in Spanish: Ex libris
bookplate in Esperanto: Ekslibriso
bookplate in French: Ex-libris
bookplate in Icelandic: Bókmerki
bookplate in Italian: Ex libris
bookplate in Hebrew: אקס ליבריס
bookplate in Luxembourgish: Exlibris
bookplate in Lithuanian: Ekslibrisas
bookplate in Hungarian: Ex libris
bookplate in Dutch: Ex libris
bookplate in Japanese: エクスリブリス
bookplate in Norwegian: Ex libris
bookplate in Polish: Ekslibris
bookplate in Portuguese: Ex libris
bookplate in Russian: Экслибрис
bookplate in Slovak: Ex libris
bookplate in Slovenian: Ekslibris
bookplate in Finnish: Exlibris
bookplate in Swedish: Exlibris
bookplate in Turkish: Ex libris
bookplate in Chinese: 藏書票
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