I recently received my copy of The Bookplate Journal and wanted to write a post about it as this particular issue seems to be a good starting point for people who want to know more about bookplates. The editorial does a nice job summing it up with the opening words of: "This issue of the Journal seeks to answer the questions of why and how bookplates are collected and studied."
The first article: Why collect bookplates? by Bryan Welch, was of particular appeal to me as my personal interest in bookplates does not come from amassing a collection, but rather the part they play in enhancing a book. They can be of interest in a portfolio with other bookplates, but really I like how they elevate the books that they are in. The article acknowledges that amassing bookplates outside of books can be a contentious issue, but that really a lot of the bookplates in portfolio collections have been rescued from books about to be pulped, or were never in a book to begin with. It argues that portfolio collections allow for the study of bookplates in a way that is not as easily possible when they are spread out over a library.
In the next article: Collecting ex libris: some international aspects by W. E. Butler, the definition of ex libris is discussed. The starting point being the definition as laid down by the FISAE Congress in 2012. Ultimately it defines ex libris as something that indicates ownership of a book, with even an inscription being covered by the umbrella term. The article then goes on to describe what makes a good bookplate, followed by how ex libris is approached, how it evolved, and the considerations therein. The article ends with several pages devoted to the FISAE (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Amateurs d’Ex-Libris / International Federation of of Ex Libris Societies).
Are Bookplates Art? Is a short piece by the artist Peter Ford that takes issue with one of the aspects of the definition of ex libris discussed in the preceding article and laid down by the FISAE Congress: That ex libris is not art. I think the definition sought to state that the primary purpose of ex libris is to denote ownership, with their artistic merits (although valid and to be admired) being a secondary purpose. Also that it does not have to have artistic merit to be defined as ex libris. In his article Ford raises a valid point:
"Is it still true that ex libris are 'in essence' labels to assert the ownership of books? One can agree with this as an essential design element whilst noting that in the underworld of the contemporary book plate very few examples get near a book."
By the FISAE Congress' definition would a bookplate, having never been in a book, cease to be a bookplate? Does it not become another form of art? The article goes on to quote a recent introductory essay by the Polish academic Tamasz F. de Rossel wherein he says that:
"Ex-Libris is no longer an auxiliary element in a library but nowadays belongs to another category of objects in an art collection as a fully autonomous work of art."
I find that both ideas highlight the changing uses and versatile appeal of ex libris. In a book it is a utilitarian thing that can be appreciated for it's craftsmanship and the provenance it provides, but outside of a book, and so outside of its intended use, can you argue that it is not art?
Books and Birds: ornithological bookplates and their makers by Robert McCracken Peck was interesting for me as it highlights one of the ways that people collect: they have a specific interest and set out to collect bookplates relating to that interest. In his article Peck initally explains how he started his collection and then takes us on a little stroll through it via some carefully chosen examples with accompanying illustrations.
I'm going to stop for now, but will be revisiting the other articles in later blog posts. My thoughts and reflections in no way substitute the real thing, which is much more detailed and interesting. If you are interested please get in touch with The Bookplate Society. You can buy a sample journal for £7 including UK postage, or purchase back issues (at members’ rates if you apply for membership). The annual subscription costs only £40 per year for UK residents, or £52 if you live elsewhere, which is really good value.