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.

The Society in 2015 in retrospect

The Society held its 9th Annual General Meeting, covering the 2015 calendar year, on the evening of 27 April, again imposing on the kindness of owner Pat Corrigan and staff of the Better Read Than Dead bookshop in Newtown in Sydney’s lively inner west. Attendance was strong, and fittingly so, in light of the proposed discussion of a range of activities planned to celebrate the Society's tenth anniversary in October.

The initial business of the meeting comprised delivery of the President's and Honorary Secretary's reports and the financial statement for 2015. The Society's Newsletter had continued to attract interesting contributions from members and friends as well as many compliments on its content and appearance.  The President thanked members for their continuing interest in and financial support of the Society, and in particular Bronwyn Vost, honorary secretary for organising a successful annual meeting and a very pleasant show and tell meeting in her own home, and Mary Keep for superlative design of the Newsletter and the most attractive invitation ‘postcard’, the fourth of which formed the invitation to the 9th AGM. At the end of December 2015, the Society numbered 73 financial members - having lost four and gained three in the year - and its bank balance had increased over the 12 months from roughly one thousand to two thousand seven hundred dollars. There was no change in office holders for 2016 as no nominations were received other than from incumbents in 2015; office holders and committee members were confirmed for 2016.

9th Annual General Meeting invitation

The discussion of activities to promote the Society and to pursue the previous year's suggestion of mounting a bookplate design competition and exhibition generated much excitement and a foment of great ideas; many of those present volunteered to assist in different ways. Enhancing the Society's website is a perennial topic, whilst giving the Society a social media presence was raised, and I am glad to report that it has been put into effect - at least as a start - with a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NewAustralianBookplates/

The Annual General Meeting concluded with a show and tell when a number of those assembled showed interesting bookplates with interesting stories (and they will be subject of a report in the June 2016 issue of the Newsletter). As the meeting concluded, it was heartening to see members continuing to chat with each other about common interests and new discovered connections. Once again we wish to thank the staff of Better Read Than Dead for their kindnesses in looking after us on the evening.

Proposed New Australian Bookplate Society activities in 2016

  1. Work is underway in planning for a 2016 Bookplate Design Award, targeting printmaking students attending Australian tertiary institutions. Rules of the competition have been drafted and, with assistance of a members' subcommittee, discussions initiated regarding a suitable exhibition venue, judging arrangements, methods of promotion and a timetable. A Bookplate Design Award page on the Society's website will be published in order to gather in one pplace all information needed by potential entrants for the Award.
  2. To complement the Society's Newsletter, plans are in hand for additional publications to be prepared to be presented gratis to members in 2016. An Index to issues 21-40 is in preparation, for which indexing has now been commissioned; it is hoped to prepare a Directory of members, 2016, as it is now five years since publication of the previous Directory; in addition, the Vice President is in discussions regarding other possible small publications to retain members' interest in their Society as well as to attract others.
  3. Following suggestions made at the 9th Annual General Meeting, various members with connections with other art organisations have agreed to approach them to make the Society known to them and to canvass the possibility of cross promotion

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.