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Bookplates: Small works of art

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Bookplates: Small works of art

Bookplates are used to indicate a book's owner. The artistic design of each bookplate typically provides clues to the owner's taste and individuality. In the early 1900s book collecting boomed and a lot of people commissioned a personal bookplate design. Before long, societies formed around these impressive works of art.

Jack London's Klondike tales are exciting, vigorous and brutal. The Call of the Wild (1903), his story about a tame dog who eventually leads a wolf pack, is one of the finest animal stories ever written, beloved by generations of readers. The book was no doubt the inspiration for his distinctive bookplate.

London, Jack, 1876-1916, artist.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Small works of art

Bookplates, or ex libris, are small-scale graphic prints commonly placed in the front of books to denote ownership. Book collectors and bibliophiles have always inscribed their names into their prized possessions. After the Middle Ages the art of the bookplate evolved from simple labels to armorial (heraldic) images made from woodcuts and engravings. Such plates bore a coat of arms, which would often be accompanied by the Latin phrase ex libris, meaning 'from the library of' or 'from the books of'. This design element would continue to appear on bookplates despite a shift away from the armorial style.

The advent of mass publishing in the early to mid-19th century gave rise to book collecting as a widespread pastime. As a result, the bookplate as an art form in its own right began to attract considerable interest. The first three decades of the 20th century would come to be known as the 'golden era' of bookplates. This was largely due to a move away from the armorial type, which was typically heavy on ornament, and toward highly decorative pictorial or motif-based designs. These designs were more personal and more symbolic of a collector's taste and individuality. Artists and designers began to be commissioned to create bookplates, and societies were formed around the world to promote the discussion, collection and study of these small but impressive works of art.

Ex-Libris in Auckland

Hilda Wiseman, a noted and prolific Auckland artist, was at the forefront of the bookplate-appreciation movement in this country. Wiseman had connections with a number of influential and important personalities, including the founder of the movement in Australia, Percy Neville Barnett.

The Auckland Ex Libris Society was formed in November 1930, just a short time after its Wellington counterpart. Both were branches of the national society, which had held its first meeting in the capital in April of that year. As former Museum Librarian Ian Thwaites and his co-author Rie Fletcher note in their history of the Auckland chapter, 75 Years of Bookplates, "If further proof were needed of [Wiseman's] pioneering efforts, one has only to consider the exhibition of her bookplates which took place at Auckland Art Gallery, 7–26 April 1930". This was seven months prior to the first Auckland meeting, and just before the first national meeting.

An Australian connection

Auckland War Memorial Museum is home to a significant bookplate collection, which is believed to be among the largest in Australasia. It comprises three distinct collections: one made by Turnbull Librarian Johannes C. Andersen; one made by the Museum Library itself; and one acquired by the Museum via the Auckland Ex Libris Society in 1956 from the Barnett estate, three years after his death. This last grouping, which at more than 7,000 plates forms the greatest part of the Museum’s collection, is very strong in Australian and New Zealand pictorial plates.

In 2007, the Museum held an exhibition entitled Every Picture Tells a Story: Exquisite Ex Libris 1900–1950. It featured dozens of bookplates, drawn mainly from the Barnett collection, arranged into nine themes. Famous personalities (such as Jack London) who had commissioned and owned plates, and significant New Zealand artists, such as Wiseman and E. Mervyn Taylor, were well represented. The exhibition also featured plates from around the world, including some beautiful Japanese woodblock prints.

Cite this article

Lilly, Hugh. Bookplates: Small works of art. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 June 2015. Updated: 9 July 2015.

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