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The Extraordinary World of Ex Libris Art

Link – article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

Sometimes ex libris is more valuable than the book containing it

Ex libris, meaning ‘from the library of’, or ‘from the books of’ is a Latin expression attached to the art form of bookplates. These are stamps or labels that appear inside books to denote ownership, and range from the simple to the decorative and elaborate, to the obscure or even bizarre and surreal.

Noble families often used a personal coat of arms or crest, frequently featuring a family motto in their native language or in Latin. Naturally, styles change over time, but most bookplates reflect the decorative styles of the era in which they were created.

 A vast range of illustrations feature on bookplates – dragons, angels, trophies, animals, birds, children, musical instruments, weapons, floral displays, trees, plants, landscapes and much more.

(images credit: Pratt Libraries, via)

The study and collection of bookplates began around 1860. Bookplates are very often of high interest, exceeding that of the book in which they are placed. They are valued for their historical interest as examples of art from a particular time period, but also if they belonged to famous people. This article does not claim to include all the bookplates in history and simply examines and highlights some of the more interesting examples of ex libris art that uncovered in the course of my research.

(images via 1, 2)

The bookplate first came on the scene just after the first printed books made their appearance in the fifteenth century. The earliest known examples of bookplates are from Germany, where they were made in large numbers before the practice spread to other countries. Consequently, for collectors, these examples are often of the most interest artistically. The oldest recorded bookplate dates from around 1450.

This angelic design from Germany, known as the ‘Gift-plate of Hildebrand Brandenburg of Biberach to the Monastery of Buxheim’, dates from around 1480 – via

In France the most ancient ex-libris as yet discovered is that of one Jean Bertaud de la Tour-Blanche from 1529, while the oldest example from England belonged to Sir Nicholas Bacon, a politician in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and father of Francis Bacon. It served as a gift plate for books he presented to the University of Cambridge before his death in 1579.

Early plates from Holland and Italy are dated to 1597 and 1622 respectively. Examples are common from many parts of Europe in the seventeenth century and the earliest known American example is the plain printed label of John Williams from 1679.

Bookplates appeared in other parts of the world as well. This one attributed to Shah Jahan dates from the Mughal dynasty era in India in 1645:

(fragments, see the whole art here)

While this one (image below left) was also clearly inspired by the artwork and customs of the Indian subcontinent. The ex-libris on the right: great executioner design serves as a warning to respect the book’s ownership or face drastic consequences:

Heraldic designs were commonly used for decoration, as shown in this plate from England:

(image via)

This American design from 1905 has some heraldic and coat of arms elements, but also incorporates a house in an elegant frame (image below left). George Bancroft’s bookplate, complete with a signature, takes inspiration from Ancient Greece. “Eis phaos” translates from Greek as “towards the light.”

This plate created for himself by Samuel Hollyer dates from 1896, but mentions Hogarth and is in the style of the eighteenth century (image left). On the right is the great design for Jane Patterson, from 1890:

(images via)

Artist Amy Sacker designed many bookplates for her clients in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

(images via)

In this one, dated 1953, a monk sits at the foot of a tree, which bears books as well as leaves on the branches. Right image is a wonderful depiction of a skeleton playing the cello, from 1909:

(images via 1, 2)

These excellent examples of bookplates all date from the first half of the twentieth century:

(images credit: Pratt Libraries, via)

Historical personalities and celebrities, politicians, movie stars, athletes and even some of the more infamous figures of history, have all used bookplates as well:

French president Charles de Gaulle’s bookplate proudly displays the Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the Free French Forces during World War Two (left image); Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister, used a bookplate that reflected his passion for sailing (middle image); Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister in the inter war period (right image):

This one on the left, dating from around 1907, belonged to the last Czar of Russia, the unfortunate Nicholas II. Upper right image: Queen Victoria’s bookplate looks suitably royal, displaying a coat of arms. Lower right image: This belonged to the Swedish and Norwegian King Oscar II -

George Washington’s bookplate, showing a family coat of arms, was engraved in London to his specifications in 1792 (left image). Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution, was also an renowned engraver and a designer of silverware and had his own unique artwork for use with his book collection (right image):

(images via 1, 2)

Charles Dickens, well known of course as a writer of books, had his own bookplates for the volumes in his personal collection (left image). Jack London’s bookplate looks ideal for placing inside his own novels, such as Call of the Wild or White Fang (on the right):

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, had a suitably grand design pasted into his book collection:

(Ex-libris on the right is dated 1909, via)

The bookplate belonging to Sigmund Freud contains a nude figure (left image). Jack Dempsey, world champion heavyweight boxer in the 1920’s (right image):

Benito Mussolini, the infamous Italian dictator, needs no introduction and these are two of the bookplates that he commissioned in the mid thirties:

(image via)

Greta Garbo famously declared that she wanted to be alone, probably with plenty of books for company, all displaying her own distinctive label (left image). Douglas Fairbanks Jr, was born in New York, but had a very aristocratic British style to his bookplate (right image):

The bookplate of Harpo Marx features a caricature of himself (top left image). Charles Chaplin used this bookplate in his personal library. Other Hollywood celebrities who had their own bookplates include: Cecil B. de Mille, Bing Crosby – see image below:

Wonderul sets of ex libris art are located here and here.

Some vintage ex libris art had an amazing amount of detail, comparable with paintings and engravings of the period:

(Bookplate circa 1814, 1907 – Designed for Franz James Mankiewicz – image via)


Simon Rose is the author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including The Alchemist’s Portrait, The Sorcerer’s Letterbox, The Clone Conspiracy, The Emerald Curse, The Heretic’s Tomb and The Doomsday Mask.

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