Saturday, September 24, 2016

The art of bookplates: disappearing beauty in a digital age


The bookplate is one of the unrecognized losses of the print empire (like a once-mighty imperial force, the artforms of type and the book are retreating before the digital demands of a new order). Where first-editions and beloved books in a personal library were at one time marked as belonging to an individual through bookplates, the internet no longer requires an Ex Libris stamp.

That leaves the collecting of antique bookplates -- a print adjunct dating back almost to the age of Gutenberg -- to a vigilant group of bibliophiles, who occasionally share their finds with the world at large -- if the contemporary world, at least, might see these miniatures as works of art.

Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates (Yale University Press), by Martin Hopkinson, presents 100 examples of the book-owner's pride, mostly from the early 1900s when printing and mass-distribution made the ownership of books affordable to many. The idea of a private library (once only a luxury) also reflected ideas of education and a growing amount of leisure time in the middle class.

The bookplate became a personal expression of the book-owner's interests and passions. In one, for the scientist experimenting with rats at the University of Rochester, the artist Stephen Gooden drew an owl proudly claiming his rodent prize. When Ethel Luce-Clausen saw the bookplate he had designed for her, Gooden explained simply, "the rat crept in when I wasn't looking."

Most bookplates are more sedate reflections of their owner's personality, although one from the 1970s included in a slideshow at the Guardian UK might give Aubrey Beardsley a start. 
The bookplate may be a diminished art but one that retains its small beauty in this digital age. It's good to have Hopkinson's collection (from the British Museum) to remind readers that there are advantages to print that the world of ones-and-zeroes can never replace.

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