Bookplates – small, printed decorative labels pasted into books – reveal much about the volumes they grace and their collectors. Here, Librarian Alexandra Hill and Collections Assistant Emily Lansell open a few front covers to find fascinating images that reveal insights into the history of design, and into the books’ owners.
Bookplates discovered in Wellcome Collection range from the 17th to the 20th centuries, from across Europe and the Americas. One of the most common ways of identifying a bookplate is the use of the phrases “ex bibliotheca” or “ex libris”, meaning “from the library of”. Identifying the owner of a bookplate is sometimes more difficult, as it relies on searching for mottos and initials – as with the bookplate of Dr Nicolás León (1859–1929), former Director of the Museo Nacional de México, whose impressive collection of Latin American material resides at Wellcome.
Symbols are an important aspect of bookplate design, but it can take time to crack the code. The seven ancient symbols on this bookplate, including the gnostic cross near the serpent’s head and the mystic syllable om at the top, were discovered to represent the Theosophical Society. The society, founded in New York in 1875, aimed at spreading ideas of Theosophy – a system of spiritual beliefs based on Brahmanism and Buddhism – across the world.
Bookplates not only denote ownership of a book but can also show how a collector identified themselves or their work. Charles Atwood Kofoid (1865–1947) was an American zoologist at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a prolific book collector. Kofoid’s bookplate displays both his love for books and the horizontal net he invented to collect specimens of plankton protozoa from the sea. The personality shown through the designs made us consider what elements we would incorporate into our own bookplates. Alexandra would choose dinosaurs playing a board game while Emily would choose a cup of tea and a book.
Ernst Darmstaedter (1877–1938) was a German chemist and historian, and his bookplate is littered with alchemical symbols including silver, mercury and tin. It was seeing this bookplate again and again in the collection that prompted further research into Darmstaedter. The Wellcome Library Accession Register and correspondence confirmed that more than 1,000 books were purchased from his personal collection in 1930. Tragically, Darmstaedter committed suicide in the November Pogroms of 1938 in Nazi Germany – we feel privileged to care for such an important aspect of his legacy and memory.
Sometimes a bookplate does not identify a person or an institution, but a place in time. The bookplate for designer William Morris appears incredibly bare and not in keeping with the Arts and Crafts style – in fact it was only added to this 15th-century book after the designer’s death. The bookplate therefore demonstrates the value of provenance in the world of buying, selling and collecting rare books.
The global nature of the book trade means that bookplates can be used to track the movement of a book across centuries and geographic boundaries. After leaving the printer’s workshop in 1721, the book above headed to the library of British politician Philip Champion de Crespigny before moving to the library of the Yorkshire-based book collector Edward Hailstone – as displayed by his unusual gilt leather bookplate. In the late 19th century it went across the Atlantic and into the collection of Charles Finney Cox, one of the incorporators of the New York Botanical Garden, before ending up back in London, when it was bought by Wellcome at auction in 1907.
Another way to track the movement of books is through gift giving, with bookplates often providing essential evidence as to which books were given and to whom, but not always answering why. The exact relationship between the patron of the Royalty Cinema in Birmingham and an early 19th-century book on hospitals for soldiers, owned by members of the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry, remains a mystery. The same bookplate can be found on one of the copies of ‘A Familiar Companion to the Holy Communion’ (1817) held by the British Library. It isn’t clear who gave these books or why, how they ended up in these two institutions, or why it was done through a cinema in Birmingham.
Looking at the examples already shown, you’d be forgiven for thinking that book collecting was only carried out by men. While the majority of bookplates indicate male ownership, female owners can be identified – albeit with slightly more difficulty. The bookplate of sisters Elizabeth Savage and Harriet Lloyd was only recognised after looking through the Wellcome Library Accession Registers. One register shows this book on algebra was bought at an auction at Hintlesham Hall in 1909 and it is only by checking the history of the property that the names on the bookplate were matched to those of two sisters who inherited the hall in 1818.
While any interest in book history should always be encouraged, the rise in interest in bookplate design during the 19th century had unfortunate consequences. With many collectors only interested in bookplate aesthetics, this type of collecting led to thousands of bookplates being ripped out of books, leaving both figurative and literal gaps in the books’ stories. Wellcome holds entire boxes of loose bookplates which, although providing a range of designs, artists and owners, have lost the connection to their book, collection and history.
Bookplates provide a fascinating insight into the world of book ownership and are an excellent starting point in uncovering the history of a book, an individual or a collection. Continuing research shows there are thousands of bookplates scattered throughout Wellcome Collection, each with their own unique story to share. It is too early to tell what else will be revealed through studying these intriguing items.
About the authors
Dr Alexandra Hill is the Llibrarian for the Printed Rare Materials Audit at Wellcome Collection. Her research focuses on the materiality of books printed between 1450 and 1851, while her book ‘Lost Books and Printing in London, 1557–1640: An Analysis of the Stationers’ Company Register’ explores the role of loss and survival on our understanding of early modern print culture.
Emily Lansell is a Collections Assistant at Wellcome Collection, working on an inventory project across both early printed book (pre-1851) and visual and material culture collections. Alongside spending time immersed in the collections, she is particularly interested in highlighting and researching material that may be sensitive and/or offensive in support of collections access, as well as diversity and inclusion priorities at Wellcome Collection.