Books and bookplates have co-existed for over 500 years. A bookplate, or ex libris, is a small printed work on paper fixed inside a book to identify the owner. Early ex libris were heraldic in design, with shields, crests and mottos. Later, pictorial plates became popular, with views, interiors and people. This illustrative approach freed up the creativity of ex libris artists and the book lovers they worked with.
Though these printed labels mark ownership, they have always held wider meaning. As commissioned works, they give insight into the owner’s personality through the choice of artist, text, and content. They add dignity and delight to a book through a distinctive visual signature. And ex libris enlighten aspects of social and graphic history; being modest yet notable indicators of current design and lifestyle preoccupations of their era.
Auckland Museum Library’s bookplate holdings are rich and substantial, their significance acknowledged throughout Australasia. The collection includes those of Danish-born bibliographer Johannes Andersen (1873-1962), and Australian bookplate authority Percy Neville Barnett (1881-1953). Andersen’s collection is a particularly strong New Zealand resource. Barnett’s collection spans continents and epochs, with bookplates from Australia, America, Britain, Europe, and Japan.
Techniques used to produce these absorbing, small-scale works on paper are varied, and include woodcuts and wood engravings, lithographs, silk screens, etchings and engravings on metal. Some are enhanced with calligraphy, pen and ink, and watercolour.
The work of fine artists, illustrators, print makers and graphic designers, the bookplate enterprise has involved well known artists alongside forgotten and unknown practitioners. Likewise, some plate owners have been public figures while many others lived private lives. Notwithstanding the reputation of their creators or owners, each bookplate immortalizes an individual or institution, offering a distilled vision of their world.
The making of bookplates for individuals in New Zealand peaked during the 1930s and 1940s. Stylistically, New Zealand ex libris drew upon the Art Noveau and Art Deco design movements while favouring local subject matter, as seen in the work of artists including Mervyn Taylor, Olive Lloyd, Hilda Wiseman, and Russell Clark.
Although still pasted in books, bookplates after 1900 became more collectors’ items. Today, with collectors avidly seeking bookplates via the internet, the source of ex libris enjoyment, once savoured at the moment of opening a book, is a rare pleasure.
Useful links about bookplates
Inspect examples of the Library’s bookplate collection in the Library Catalogue.
For details about publications in the Library collection about bookplates contact us .
Find out more about the bookplate exhibition ‘every picture tells a story : exquisite ex libris 1900–1950’.