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What is a bookplate?

Woodcut bookplate by Albrecht Dürer for Willibald Pirckheimer, c. 1501

The bookplate, or ex libris, is a label giving the owner’s name pasted into a book, or on occasion used to record donation ofthe book to a library. In the western tradition, the bookplate arose in Germany not long after the invention by Johann Gutenberg of printing from moveable type around 1440-1450; the earliest known examples are woodcuts from the late fifteenth century. Since that time, bookplates have been created using the entire range of printmaking and typographic techniques available including, in the modern era, photography and computer aided design.

Early bookplate collecting in England

The first recorded bookplate British collector was Miss Sarah Banks (1744-1818), sister of Sir Joseph Banks. Her collection of approximately 180 bookplates formed but a minute part of her ephemera collection which was presented to the British Museum after her death. The first collectors on a larger scale were a Miss Jenkins of Bath, active in 1820, whose collection is now in the British Museum, and the Rev. Daniel Parsons (c. 1811-1887).  The latter wrote the first recorded article on bookplates, published in 1837 in the Oxford Genealogical and Heraldic Society’s Third Annual Report. Examination of the Banks and Parsons collections suggest that collecting bookplates evolved from the pastime of collecting or preserving coats of arms.

Bookplate societies – then and nowBookplate by Jan Rerberg for the AELS, 1923

As bookplate collecting gathered momentum in the late nineteenth century, the Ex Libris Society was formed in London in 1891, and this interest was trans-planted to Australia by a small number of passionate collectors of bookplates largely in armorial form. Around this time, Sydney solicitor John Lane Mullins commissioned the first Australian pictorial design, and in 1923 he became the founding president of the Australian Ex Libris Society which lasted until 1939, when Lane Mullins’ death and the outbreak of World War II led to the Society’s demise. A brief revival in interest occurred in 1941-4  in Melbourne with the Australian Bookplate Club, but organised collecting had to wait another half century until the formation of the Australian Bookplate Society, which at the present time focuses on an Australian Bookplate Design Award through the Keith Wingrove Memorial Trust.

The New Australian Bookplate Society

The Society's bookplate by Mary Keep

The New Australian Bookplate Society was unofficially launched at a bookplate exhibition held at Blackheath's Stop Laughing This is Serious Gallery in October 2005, attended by artists and other lovers of bookplates.  A year later on 22 October 2006, a meeting to officially form the Society was held in the Edward Ford Room of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in Macquarie Street, Sydney. The purpose of the Society is to raise awareness of the art of bookplates among printmakers, collectors and the general public. At present there are approximately 80 personal and institutional members distributed in almost all Australian states as well as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

More information on the history of Australian bookplate societies can be found on this page.

Newsletter and printed materials

The flagship of the society is its quarterly, full-colour Newsletter, which publishes a range of illustrated articles, letter and notes on historical and contemporary aspects of bookplates. Contributions are invited from members and non-members; any enquiries should be directed to the Editor, Dr Mark Ferson on +61 401 141 890 or by email at m.fersonATunsw.edu.au More information is available on the Newsletter page.

For information on joining the Society, please go to this page.

 President's report for 2018 (delivered at the New Aust. Bookplate Society 12th AGM, 25 June 2019)

The year for the Society was marked by involvement in more bookplate events, likely because we are networking with like-minded groups and word is just spreading about the Society. The most unexpected and spectacular of these events was, of course, the donation in April of the susbtantial bookplate collection of Australian artist and bookplate designer Eirene Mort, by her family. This was the result of the connections and work of the Society’s Honorary Secretary, Bronwyn Vost, and parts of the story have been told by Bronwyn in Newsletter number 50 and at last year’s AGM; indeed we are grateful to Bronwyn for arranging today’s guest speaker, Pam Lane, who will tell us about Eirene Mort’s life and work, and I am very much looking forward to hearing Pam’s talk.

It was great to have been invited to speak about bookplates during the year: at the Adrian Feint Study Day held on 12 May at Adelaide’s Carrick Hill, on ‘The history of Australian bookplate design’; and at a joint workshop with printmaker Dianne Longley ‘The secrets of bookplates’ at Paper Contemporary 2018, held at Sydney’s Carriageworks on 16 September, kindly organised by member Akky Van Ogtrop, President of the Print Council of Australia. Of course I took every opportunity to promote the Society on these occasions.

One of the amazing results of our informal networks and the existence of the Society’s website (which could always do with more work and a few more volunteers…) is that we receive some really interesting enquiries from people. And to keep a good record of these I set up a special folder in my email program. Enquiries received during 2018 sought advice on how to find someone to design a bookplate, how best to stick bookplates into books, trying to find out about people eg Noel Pearson, and who holds the copyright in GD Perrottet’s bookplates.

AGM invite 2019

Paid membership of the Society rose slightly to 72 (from 67 in 2017), of which 59 were for the hard copy Newsletter and 13 the digital membership. We sadly lost two members who died during the year, Glen Ross Ralph (1932-2018) and Ian Ronald Stubbin (1942-2018).

Our four issues of the Newsletter were well received, in particular issue 50 which celebrated several members – Jeff Bidgood, Lis Bastian and Mary Keep – who have made great contributions to the Society. I wish to thank Mary Keep for her always excellent design of our publications, and to express my gratitude to Newsletter contributors Pamela Horsnell (Sydney), Debra Parry (Melbourne), Jürgen Wegner (Sydney), Andrew Peake (Adelaide), Ian Thwaites (Auckland), Bronwyn Vost (Sydney), Jan Taylor (Sydney) and Dr Michael Taffe (Ballarat).

My thanks also go to Bronwyn for organising today’s AGM and for arranging the social media workshop to be led by Zora Regulic in coming weeks, and to the Society executive and committee, Ronald Cardwell and Nick Ingleton, for their support of the Society and my work.

Finally, I thank Paul Feain for once again agreeing to host our AGM and for providing the wonderful, welcoming atmosphere that we find at Sydney Rare Book Auctions.