BOOK-PLATES. The book-plate, or ex-libris, a printed label intended to indicate ownership in individual volumes, is nearly as old as the printed book itself. It bears very much the same relation to the hand-painted armorial or otherwise symbolical personal device found in medieval manuscripts that the printed page does to the scribe's work. The earliest known examples of book-plates are German. According to Friedrich Warnecke, of Berlin (one of the best authorities on the subject), the oldest movable ex-libris are certain woodcuts representing a shield of arms supported by an angel (fig. 1), which were pasted in books presented to the Carthusian monastery of Buxheim by Brother Hildebrand Brandenburg of Biberach, about the year 1480 - the date being fixed by that of the recorded gift. The woodcut, in imitation of similar devices in old MSS., is hand-painted. In France the most ancient ex-libris as yet discovered is that of one Jean Bertaud de la Tour-Blanche, the date of which is 1529; and in England that of Sir Nicholas Bacon, a gift-plate for the books he presented to the university of Cambridge (fig. 2). Holland comes next with the plate of a certain Anna van der Aa, in 1597; then Italy with one attributed to the year 1622. The earliest known American example is the plain printed label of one John Williams, 1679.
A sketch of the history of the book-plate, either as a minor work of symbolical and decorative art, or as an accessory to the binding of books, must obviously begin in Germany, not only because the earliest examples known are German, but also because they are found in great numbers long before the fashion spread to other countries, and are often of the highest artistic interest. Albrecht Dürer is known to have actually engraved at least six plates (some of very important size) between 1503 and 1516 (fig. 3), and to have supplied designs for many others. Several notable plates are ascribed to Lucas Cranach and to Hans Holbein, and to that bevy of so-called Little Masters, the Behams, Virgil Solis, Matthias Zundt, Jost Amman, Saldörfer, Georg Hüpschmann and others. The influence of these draughtsmen over the decorative styles of Germany has been felt through subsequent centuries down to the present day, notwithstanding the invasion of successive Italian and French fashions during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the marked effort at originality of composition observable among modern designers. The heavy, over-elaborated German style never seems to have affected neighbouring countries; but since it was undoubtedly from Germany that was spread the fashion of ornamental book-plates as marks of possession, the history of German ex-libris remains on that account one of high interest to all those who are curious in the matter.
It was not before the 17th century that the movable ex-libris became tolerably common in France. Up to that time the more luxurious habit of stamping the cover with a personal device had been in such general favour with book-owners as to render the use of labels superfluous. From the middle of the century, however, the ex-libris proper became quite naturalized; examples of that period are very numerous, and, as a rule, are very handsome. It may be here pointed out that the expression ex-libris, used as a substantive, which is now the recognized term for book-plate everywhere on the continent, found its origin in France. The words only occur in the personal tokens of other nationalities long after they had become a recognized inscription on French labels.
In many ways the consideration of the English book-plate, in its numerous styles, from the late Elizabethan to the late Victorian period, is peculiarly interesting. In all its varieties it reflects with great fidelity the prevailing taste in decorative art at different epochs. 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 reposes in the King's library, British Museum, does not come under the head of book-plate 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. 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 Gentilitiae, 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, thenceforth until the dawn of the French Revolution, English modes of decoration in book-plates, 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 [fig. 4] gives a tolerably 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 so much to the fore. 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, until comparatively recent days, 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 below, and crest on a fillet above. Of late years, however, a rapid impetus appears to have been given to the designing of ex-libris; a new era, in fact, has 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 of date) have already been noticed. It is, however, necessary to point out that certain styles of composition were also prevalent at certain periods. Many of the older plates (like the majority of the most modern ones) were essentially pictorial. Of this kind the best-defined English genus may be recalled: the library interior - a term which explains itself - and book-piles, exemplified by the ex-libris (fig. 6) 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 (see Plate), etc. In most of these the armorial element plays but a secondary part.
The value attached to book-plates, otherwise than as an object of purely personal interest, is comparatively modern. The study of and the taste for collecting these private tokens of book-ownership hardly date farther back than the year 1875. The first real impetus was given by the appearance of the Guide to the Study of Book-Plates, by Lord de Tabley (then the Hon. Leicester Warren) in 1880. This work, highly interesting from many points of view, established what is now accepted as the general classification of styles: early armorial (i.e. previous to Restoration, exemplified by the Nicholas Bacon plate); Jacobean, a somewhat misleading term, but distinctly understood to include the heavy decorative manner of the Restoration, Queen Anne and early Georgian days (the Lansanor plate, fig. 5, is typically Jacobean); Chippendale (the style above described as rococo, tolerably well represented by the French plate of Convers); wreath and ribbon, belonging to the period described as that of the urn, etc. Since then the literature on the subject has grown considerably. Societies of collectors have been founded, first in England, then in Germany and France, and in the United States, most of them issuing a journal or archives: The Journal of the Ex-libris Society (London), the Archives de la société française de collectionneurs d'ex-libris (Paris), both of these monthlies; the Ex-libris Zeitschrift (Berlin), a quarterly.
Much has been written for and against book-plate collecting. If, on the one hand, the more enthusiastic ex-librists (for such a word has actually been coined) have made the somewhat ridiculous claim of science for "ex-librisme," the bitter animadversion, on the other, of a certain class of intolerant bibliophiles upon the vandalism of removing book-plates from old books has at times been rather extravagant. Book-plates are undoubtedly 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 personages. There can be no question, for instance, that engravings or designs by artists such as Holbein and Dürer and the Little Masters of Germany, by Charles Eisen, Hubert François Bourguignon, dit Gravelot, D.N. Chodowiecki or Simon Gribelin; by W. Marshall, W. Faithorne, David Loggan, Sir Robert Strange, Francesco Piranesi; by Hogarth, Cipriani, Bartolozzi, John Keyse Sherwin, William Henshaw, Hewitt or Bewick and his imitators; or, to come to modern times, that the occasional examples traced to the handicraft of Thomas Stothard, Thackeray, Millais, Maclise, Bell Scott, T.G. Jackson, Walter Crane, Caldecott, Stacy Marks, Edwin Abbey, Kate Greenaway, Gordon Browne, Herbert Railton, Aubrey Beardsley, Alfred Parsons, D.Y. Cameron, Paul Avril - are worth collecting.
Until the advent of the new taste the devising of book-plates was almost invariably left to the routine skill of the heraldic stationer. Of late years the composition of personal book-tokens has become 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 modern English artists who have more specially paid attention to the devising of book-plates, and have produced admirable designs, 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. 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 modern plates are reproduced by process. There are, however, a few artists left who devote to book-plates their skill 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 (see Plate).
Authorities. - The curious in the matter of book-plate composition will find it treated in the various volumes of the Ex-libris Series (London). See also A. Poulet-Malassis, Les Ex-libris français (1875); Hon. J. Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), A Guide to the Study of Book-plates (1880); Sir A.W. Franks, Notes on Book-plates, 1574-1800 (private, 1887); Friedrich Warnecke, Die deutschen Bücherzeichen (1890); Henri Bouchot, Les Ex-libris et les marques de possession du livre (1891); Egerton Castle, English Book-plates (1892); Walter Hamilton, French Book-plates (1892), Dated Book-plates (1895); H.W. Fincham, Artists and Engravers of British and American Book-plates (1897); German Book-plates, by Count K.E. zu Leiningen-Westerburg, translated by G.R. Denis (1901).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)