Exlibris - Bookplates

The story of exlibris, bookplates, how to commission them, how to use them, how to collect them and how to love them is told in the article quoted just below.

My interest in the art of bookplates is focused on wine-exlibris, bookplates with wine motifs for my wine books, medical exlibris, bookplates with medical motifs for my medical textbooks and chess-exlibris for my chess-books.

The next International Bookplate congress - FISEA Congress XXVIII Exlibris Boston 2000 - is scheduled for Boston August 20-23: www.bookplate.org

Many interesting books on bookplate artists and bookplate collection have been published by Primrose Hill Press Ltd in London: www.primrosehillpress.co.uk


Bookplate with a medical motif drawn by the Danish artist: Mads Stage.


Bookplates with wine motifs

- how to commission them, how to use them, how to collect them and how to love them.

"How grateful I am to have still with me, on my shelves, so many old friends, the books which I have been collecting all my life. There are, I know, many bibliophiles who have a far greater number of books than I have, but I cannot imagine anybody having assembled a more representative collection of books of wine interest, not only books dealing exclusively with viticulture and winemaking, but others in which wine is considered from the moral, social, economic, and medical angles. Thus, although the Bible cannot be called a "wine book", I did not hesitate to buy, when I had the chance to do so, a beautiful folio of Gutenberg's Bible, printed at Mainz between 1450 and 1455, with Isaiah's description of the planting of a vineyard."
This quote from André L. Simon is a nice try to define a Wayward Tendril. Obviously André cared for his wine books and he did not hesitate to commission a bookplate for his beloved books (Fig. 1). The artist is unknown but the motif is right and proper for a "bibulous bibliophile": an old vine with clusters of grapes, a badge with an inscription and a few books in the corner. The design has one flaw though: the owners name is represented with initials only. Since the prime function of a bookplate is to assist the proper return of the book to its rightful owner, that kind of guesswork with initials, picture puzzles or whatever is not recommended. Rule nr.1: a bookplate should display the name of the owner loud and clear.

Sibi et amicis

The Wayward Tendrils would have been nothing without Gutenberg's stroke of genius in 1440. With his invention, the casting of separate metal types, Gutenberg initiated the art of printing books like the beautiful Bible André L. Simon had the good fortune to purchase. Since wine drinking and the growing of grapes are essentials parts of the German culture it is no wonder that one of the early German bookplates - the woodcut by Albrecht Dürer from 1502 to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer (Fig. 2) - is a coat of arms decorated with cornucopias of grapes and vines. At that time the artists were learned people well trained in Latin and Greek and with a thorough knowledge of history and symbolics. Dürer is no exception and he has taken the chance to show some of his language skills. Please observe Pirkheimer's motto: SIBI ET AMICIS (for himself and his friends). Bookplates should be a passport to friendship and not a mark of meanness. Bilibald is a generous friend quite in harmony with the ancient toast: "May we never want a friend, nor a bottle to share with him." "Liber" means book, so the plate is meant for Bilibald's books. The same message is often sent by adding the word Ex Libris to the design of the plate. Ex Libris - spelled in two words with no hyphen - is Latin and stand for "of books" - implying "the owner of these books." The same message may be sent with English phrases like "N.N.'s book" - "Her book" - "Belongs to" - "From the library of" - "From the books of" et cetera. When you write about bookplates as a concept you may use "exlibris" written in one word with no capital letters. Rule nr. 2: in a bookplate-design the words "Ex Libris" are written in two words with capital letters and no hyphen.

A thing of beauty

Most wine districts boast a beautiful countryside with idyllic hamlets inhabited by friendly people. The optimistic and positive culture of wine often influence the art of the region, the loving care of gardens and vineyards, the architecture of castles and patrician homes, the design of decanters and drinking cups, the local dishes, the abundance of fine restaurants - in all a haven for the good things in life. Napa Valley is a fine example of this tradition. In the center of Napa you will find St. Helena, a town living by and living for wine. One of its main attractions for a Wayward Tendril is the Wine Library run by the Napa Valley Wine Library Association. In a time, where most libraries have succumbed to practical methods of identification like ugly stamps or the ubiquitous bar codes, it is a pleasant surprise to find hundreds of wine books decorated with the excellent bookplate designed by Mallette Dean (Fig. 3). The serene motif, a vintner picking grapes, has been printed with the medium ruby colour, that a bottle of Bordeaux Grand Cru achieves after several years of maturation in the wine cellar. There is a lesson to learn in the Wine Library of St. Helena: in caring for their books Wayward Tendrils should give priority to beauty at the expense of the practical and go for bookplates instead of bar codes. Rule nr. 3: "A bookplate should be a thing of beauty and a joy forever, so the first cost need not or should not be a matter of much consideration" (Walter Hamilton, 1894).

The art of boring

Leaving the cost out of account could mean choosing an expensive technique of execution like copper engraving. A fair amount of the intricate engraved collage for the wine merchant Francis Berry will be lost in the reproduction, but the artist Lord Badely spared no pains in depicting the wine merchants home ground (Fig. 4). According to James Wilson, the English antiquarian bookseller & bookplate expert, Francis L. Berry (1876-1936) joined the family firm c. 1894, greatly increased its export business and friendship with Continental suppliers, and was many years a senior partner. His Wimbledon home was filled with the fruits of his collecting and connoisseurship, and his circle of friends included distinguished artists. The motif of the bookplate compiles the life & work of Francis Berry. The topmost picture shows the interior of the wine shop. Below is the exterior of Berry Brothers and Rudd's wine shop in St. James's Street with St. James's Palace beyond. The composition includes vine and floral ornament, prints of scenes, wine goblets and some new and old wine bottles. The artist has put his name and the year of origin on a ribbon below to the right: "J.F.Badely 26". All of it very interesting, however, the art of boring is to tell it all. That is a pitfall to avoid when commissioning a bookplate. Do not make the task of the artist impossible by asking for a design with a picture of your home, a symbol of your work, a reference to your kids, a full pictorial coverage of your many hobbies, some old books, a wise owl and maybee your Zodiac sign just to finish the collage. Eventually you and your friends would be bored stiff by the messy design, and any sensible artist would resist such an approach. Just remember one thing: if you need a professional bookplate, and a bookplate for wine books, plus a bookplate for detective stories et cetera is is perfectly all right to have more than one bookplate. Indeed, the author of this article has more than 50 personal exlibris! Rule nr. 4: keep the motif simple.

A cooper for Mr. Kuiper

The working cooper is a good example of a plain and pretty bookplate-motif (Fig. 5). The Dutch artist A. Frederiks also managed to put a pictorial pun together in the motif; - such bookplates are called "redende exlibris" or "exlibris parlantes." The use of pictorial pun is common in exlibris art as it is in heraldry; eg. the Bowes-Lyon family bear a shield quartered with bows and lions, - a "canting coats of arms." For once we will let the owl pass. Academic symbols like the owl - the bird of wisdom, the laural wreath - symbolizing the art of poetry, oil lamps - a signal of education and knowledge, and books have been hackneyed by repetition, and conventional themes involving book piles or similar subjects should be avoided. A Wayward Tendril would not even dream of such trivial bookplate-themes. Just imagine the abundance of motifs in the terroir, the vines in the vineyard, the workers picking grapes, the wine press and fermentation vats, the maturation in barriques, the bottling and cellaring and - last but not least - the pouring and drinking. Allan Jordan's handsome woodcut for Karl Weidenhofer (Fig. 6) is another fine example of a black and white wine motif. There is a lot to say in favor of the black and white exlibris-design. Black and white bookplates are less demanding for the artist, they are cheaper to print, they are suitable for most books, and the risk of getting fed up with the motif over the years is notoriously less with the simple black and white design. Rule nr. 5: avoid the owls and look out for an attractive black and white wine motif.

A question of size

The correct place in any book for a bookplate is the centre of the inside front cover; not on the free end paper, which may curl. Care should be taken to place it properly. It should be attached by a colourless glue intended for paper and photos. Pre-glued paper is not recommended. Anyone can imagine the disastrous results of a bunch of pre-glued bookplates stored i a damp place.
The original size of Dürers exlibris for W. Pirckheimer is 20 x 14 cm. Obviously that is not a very practical size for a bookplate to be tipped into modern books. The measures of a rather large book like The Oxford Companion to Wine are 25 x 19 cm, while Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book at 19.5 x 9.5 cm should be a good fit for any pocket but a bad fit for Pirckheimer's plate. A bookplate 8-10 cm tall and 6-7 cm wide would be handy for most modern books. It is all a question of size as one of Moses' spies in the land of Canaan remarked at the sight of a very large cluster of grapes. The scene in the German lawyer Joachim Kretz' exlibris, two scouts carrying an enormous bunch of grapes, is a very popular bookplate-motif (Fig. 7). It is designed by the Polish artist Zbigniew Dolatowski, who has specialized in detailed linocuts in book-friendly sizes. In his linocut for Josef de Belder, a Dutch bookplate-collector, Dolatowski har illustrated the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin: "Behold the rain, which descends from Heaven upon our vineyards, and which enters into the vine-roots to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy" (Fig. 8). Rule nr. 6: make sure that your bookplate is designed in a handy size (8-10 x 6-7 cm) and take care to place it properly on the inside front cover of the book.

The right man for the job

"The writing of one's name in a book is sacrilege. The writing of anything else, unless it be an inscription by the author, is an abomination. But no book, however fine, is marred by a seemly bookplate. On the contrary, it is often much enhanced" the Belgian artist Mark Severin wrote in 1972. He was one of the right men for the job and created wonderful exlibris in woodcut and copper engraving. However, he has been dead for several years now, so we have to look elsewhere for the right man. Few are so lucky as the author of these lines to have amongst his patients a talented advertising designer. The rules of good advertising are these: listen to the client, use clear and consise illustrations, draw perfect letters and add colour with style. Combining these qualifications with a deep insight into the technical graphic process my patient Per Christensen had the sure recipe for an excellent bookplate designer. He has enhanced the wine books of this author with a friendly Dionysus whose smile cheers the reader every time he opens the book (Fig. 9).
Unless you are a very talented artist you should look for a professional as the right man for the job. A dilettante sketch tipped into your wine books will mar them for sure, and in the years to come you will have plenty of opportunity to regret that you did not look for the right man. Help can be found at The American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers, Cambridge Bookplate, P. O. Box 340, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or you could try The Society of Wood Engravers, att. The Hon. Secretary Hilary Painter, P. O. Box 355, Richmond, Surrey TW10 6LE, England. Rule nr. 7: if you plan to commission a bookplate look for a professional artist whose line of work suits your taste and bevare of dillettante work.

A collectors dream

By definition of Walter Hamilton "the ideal collector is one who has money, taste and leisure." All Wayward Tendrils, I guess, are ideal collectors by definition. In addition to the collection of wine books any Tendril should give the idea of collecting bookplates with wine motifs some careful consideration. Strong ties connect the bookplate with books and the graphic arts. Most bookplates are original works of art printed in relatively small numbers. They will not demand a lot of space on your shelves. They may be bought at reasonable prices, however, the best way to collect exlibris is to commission a bookplate of high quality from a reputable artist and then exchange your plate with other bookplate-owners. That method will also give you most fun. Even with a flying start you will find it next to impossible to beat Norbert Lippoczy, an enthusiastic collector from Poland, who during decades has been able to collect more than 5000 bookplates with wine motifs. Lippoczy, who descends from Hungarian vintners, left for Poland after World War II, where he started collection wine books. His library holds more than 1000 volumes on wine culture and wine groving in the Hungarian, Polish, German and Russian languages. His library with wine books and wine exlibris has been donated to the Wine Museum in Budapest. "No thing more excellent nor more valuable than wine was ever granted to mankind by God" was the opinion of the Greek philosopher Plato. This conception, Vinum - Donum Dei,is the motif of the Chech surgeon Otakar Marik's woodcut for the great collector and wine lover Norbert Lippoczy (Fig. 10).

The lure of bookplates

Even at this early stage it may bee too late; you may have contracted an incurable infection of bookplate-virus already. Even if a few cases of spontaneus recovery has been reported, there is no known cure. So if you are nursing an ambition to commission a bookplate, perhaps you should think twice. You might still be able to resist the privilege it confers of making you a patron. Today we may envy, but we cannot emulate, figures like Lorenzo dei Medici. But it is possible for us to commission from a living artist a personal bookplate exactly to your own wishes. Do not listen to people who have the strange notion that a book is not complete without a bookplate. What is a book, they claim, without the reader. Contrary to a movie or a television play any book needs the culture and the imagination of its reader as an active partner. The bookplate then is a document of the owner's taste, culture and personality and his way of rendering the book complete in cooperation with the author. So while the book represents the author, the bookplate represents the reader as the irreplaceable and vital partner in the book as a work of part.
The condition inflicted by the bookplate-virus is a chronic but not a fatal disease. You may live and collect for many years to come, and once in a while the fever in your blood will rise at the sight of wonderful bookplates like the figure cut in wood for Kundermann Jenö by the Bulgarian artist Pencho Koulekov (Fig. 11). Just do'nt say you were not warned.


Erik Skovenborg Home Page <http://www.skovenborg.dk/>