In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.
PHILADELPHIA — The first known bibliophile to adorn his collection with the personal touch of a bookplate is Hilprand Brandenburg of Biberach . The 1480 woodcut print, on view in The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, depicts an angel holding a shield emblazoned with an ox. Details of the seraphic wings are hand-colored in red and green, with the angel’s cloak, flowing as if in flight, given a rosy hue. The Rosenbach states that this is the “oldest known printed bookplate in the western world.”
When the scholarly priest Hilprand Brandenburg included these bookplates in the over 450 volumes he bestowed on the Carthusian monastery at Buxheim near Memmingen, Germany, woodblock printing had just recently been invented. As The Art of Ownership demonstrates in its five centuries of designs, bookplates often used innovative publishing techniques, from engravings to lithographs.
The 1480 Hilprand bookplate displayed in the one-room show is not the sole surviving example (there is one at the New York Public Library, for instance). Yet contained within Hilprand’s copy of Jacobus de Voragine’s 1408 Sermones quadragesimales, it further reveals something incredibly valuable about bookplates: provenance.
Curated by Alex L. Ames, The Art of Ownership features numerous bookplates still attached to their original books, conveying the progression of ownership and details about the lives of collectors. The art of the “ex libris,” as bookplates are also called (meaning “from the books of” in Latin) evolved from earlier forms of marking book ownership, such as medieval book curses that warned against theft, or simply handwritten names. The objects in The Art of Ownership are from the Rosenbach’s collections, the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia (an institution of which the Rosenbach is a part), the University of Delaware’s William Augustus Brewer Bookplate Collection, and other area repositories. Thus the focus is on American and European bookplates, although they were used around world. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is Shah Jahan’s 1645 bookplate with intricate Mughal-style embellishments in gold.
Many of the earliest bookplates from the 15th and 16th centuries are “armorial bookplates,” depicting coats of arms, since private book ownership at this time was the domain of the wealthy. Bookplates really took off in popularity with the mass production of books in the 19th century, their heyday continuing up to the 1940s. The Art of Ownership features work by renowned illustrators like Walter Crane and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as bookplates from the libraries of Charlie Chaplin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Walt Disney.
We know a lot about, say, Chaplin, but sometimes the biographical visuals of a bookplate may be the only remaining information about a person’s life, and their personal libraries, often now disassembled. One for Frank Brewer Bemis from 1925 is inside a 1620 edition of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote. Illustrated by Sidney Lawton Smith, it shows Bemis’s home library in attentive detail, down to the book shelves with their glass doors. Another in the Boston-printed book The Christians exercise by Satans temptations belonged to Hannah Sutton, the date of 1701 giving rare insight into the reading of American women in the early 18th century. From Hilprand Brandenburg with his sacred tomes, to these small portals to the past, bookplates are a gateway to individual readers in the history of literature.
The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present continues at the Rosenbach Museum and Library (2008–2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia) through March 19.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.