‘The convenience of such a label of proprietorship, printed or engraved, led to its adoption soon after the appearance of printed books. Books have been lost, borrowed, or stolen ever since type began, and a mere manuscript name is inconspicuous and easily effaced.’John Byrne Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), A Guide to the Study of Book-Plates (Ex-Libris), Manchester: 1900, p.1.
An ex libris, or a bookplate, is a printed or decorative label pasted into the opening pages of a book, giving details of its owner or home location. As the opening quotation suggests, these have been widely used since the fifteenth century by readers and collectors and are now as much a part of book history as features like bindings, decorative endpapers, paper composition and typography.
For our purposes here in UCD Special Collections, the presence of a bookplate can be important for tracing or finding out about the provenance of a book: that is, the record of ownership prior to a book’s arrival in UCD. That said, the presence of a bookplate isn’t always a guarantee that we’ll be able to trace this, though. For example, the ‘O’ that appears in the three volume History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain (Dublin, 1777) is not immediately revealing of the book’s former owner; nor in some of the many instances where a bookplate has been removed, leaving its own type of mark.
A particularly frustrating example of bookplate misadventure can be found in Matthew Pilkington’s Gentleman’s and Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Painters (London: 1770) where an older bookplate has been unceremoniously pasted over with a more recent example.
In some instances, amendments to bookplates can offer a small insight into lives, actions, or beliefs of a book’s former owner. A man called Paul Askin, for example, pasted a newspaper clipping across his bookplate – perhaps serving as a type of inspiration or memo to be an upstanding businessman.
On his simple ex libris – which includes the motto ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’ (‘Work Conquers All’) – a T. E. O’Reilly added a manuscript note to mark that he was gifting the book to ‘J. Coleman Esq’.
As these examples suggests, bookplates found in UCD Special Collections vary wildly in date, style, and detail. At their most basic, they simply state the name of the book’s owner on a small label: such as that for items from the library of John Richard Green or the Catholic University of Ireland. Because of their simplicity, these are sometimes referred to as ‘book labels’ rather than bookplates or ex libris proper.
An older, and more ornate version of this style can be found in The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, published in 1728. Formerly owned by ‘John Willison M.D. Dundee’, the text is surrounded by a fluid Rococo-style frame, complemented by the calligraphic flourishes around Willison’s name.
For much of the eighteenth century, the most popular form of bookplate (in English-speaking countries at least) was an armorial device, using elements of a family or owner’s heraldry.
This design for Francis Eyre Esq of Warkworth, Northhamptonshire, is redolent of the Chippendale armorial style which was popular from the 1740s to the 1780s: as well as the knight’s helmet, the plate has an asymmetrical shield, leaves, and shell-like edges to the framing devices.
As the eighteenth-century progressed, some armorial bookplates became more restrained, using a spade shield (given its shape) and details like wreaths or festoons. Although likely made a century later, we can see these changes across two bookplates from one owner: Laurence A. Waldron. For example, the bookplate in A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland (London, 1777) has the characteristics of the Chippendale style, while that in Lyra Apostolica (Derby, 1841)shows a far simpler shield, with a festoon design to the top, and branches below, along with the Waldron heraldic symbols and motto.
Some bookplates refer to a specific house, rather than an individual or family, such as that for Emo Park Library or the Carton Library, referring the collection once found at Carton House, Co. Kildare. In these two examples, animals flank the crest of the Earldom of Portarlington and Earldom of Kildare respectively.
Another take on the armorial bookplate was to add in allegorical and other pictorial features. An interesting example of a pictorial armorial (say that ten times fast!) is the bookplate for Thomas Gaisford (1779 – 1855). Found inside Quattro Elegantissime Egloghe Rusticali (‘Four Very Elegant Rustic Eclogues’, Venice, 1760) the design shows Gaisford’s heraldic shield with two cherubs, against the backdrop of a library and curtain.
A simpler bookplate, also for Gaisford, is pasted into another Special Collections volume: a 1748 edition of Pomponii Melae de Situ Orbis Libri III, a treatise by Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela with other commentaries.
To find books that once belonged to Gaisford in Special Collections is certainly interesting. A classical scholar, Gaisford was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford in 1811 and served as the curator of the Bodleian Library and principal delegate of Oxford University Press; he was also the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. There is little else in these books to fill in their ownership between Gaisford and UCD: as many of our books came from the College’s antecedent institutions, such as the Catholic University of Ireland, this might be one explanation.
Another curious find in our holdings in a copy of Reason Against Coition. A discourse delivered to a private congregation. By the Reverend Stephen M***** (London, 1732) believed to be the work of Jonathan Swift, writing under a pseudonym. Pasted on to the inside cover is a striking bookplate, with the name and portrait of H. S. Ashbee. In a very pleasing visual reference, the pictorial elements of the bookplate are an ash tree and a bee, surrounding a portrait vignette; there are also additional ash leaves, bee, and an open book.
Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834 – 1900), was a book collector, writer and bibliographer born and based in London. As a bibliophile, Ashbee became renowned for two strands to his collecting activity: his interest in Miguel de Cervantes and erotica. After his death, Ashbee left his book collection to the British Museum, on the condition that both would be accepted: because the trustees wanted the Cervantes books, they reluctantly agreed to the entire bequest. However, much of the erotica material was destroyed under the guise of there being duplicates, the remainder formed the core collection of the ‘Private Case’, now in the British Library.
Ashbee’s bookplate was designed by the French artist Édouard-Henri Avril (1849 – 1928) who worked under the name Paul Avril. An illustrator of erotic literature, Avril frequently collaborated with Ashbee, and so was perfectly placed to design this item. The book it appears in, which although not as explicit as many of the librorum prohibitorum Ashbee collected, does include satirical (and somewhat scatological) sections ‘Observations on the Cause and Cure of Piles, and some useful Directions about wiping the Posteriors.’
Ashbee’s bookplate, with its known artist and visual consideration, heralds a new stage in the history and making of ex libris, where the ambitions of owner and artist are intertwined with other aesthetic and cultural considerations, often (but not exclusively) linked with the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements. While there are many more examples of these in our holdings, these, as the saying goes, are a story for another day!
This post was written by Katy Milligan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections
Almack, Edward. Bookplates (London: Methuen & Co., 1904), SC/R 097 ALM.
Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974), NW Store 020.75 CAR.
Hardy, W. J. Book-Plates (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.., 1897), SC/R 097 HAR.
Warren, John Byrne Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), A Guide to the Study of Book-Plates (Ex-Libris) (Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes, 1900), SC/R 097 DET.