Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bookplates in a Printer's Library, Part II

by Alastair Johnston

As a letterpress printer, I create a lot of ephemera. Recently I was asked to design a bookplate, so I have been thinking about this ephemeral work (though, like a bumper-sticker, once it’s stuck to something, it becomes a bit more permanent).

It is said that the American flag was inspired by a bespoke bookplate (with stars and stripes) that George Washington had made up for inclusion in his books. I started looking through my own bookshelves for examples and was surprised at what I found. So here is a collection of bookplates found pretty much at random on the premises at Poltroon Press. (We collect books not bookplates so this is not a survey of highspots of the genre.)

In January 2011, I bought (for $12 from Serendipity Books) an edition of Robert Bloomfield’s Wild Flowers, a book of poetry published by Vernor & Hood in London in 1805, illustrated with wood engravings by an unknown engraver. Imagine my delight on finding the bookplate of Robert Spence (1784–1845), engraved by Thomas Bewick, on the inside front board. Spence was a North Shields canvas and sailcloth maker. He was also a Quaker, noted for his height and long white hair, according to Nigel Tattersfield, author of a book on Bewick’s bookplates. Bewick, the most famous of all wood-engravers, started out as a metal engraver and this bookplate is a copper engraving. In the distant background you can see the lantern spire of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle-on-Tyne, a characteristic Bewick landmark.

Engraved plates

Bookplates are generally typographic, calligraphic, armorial or pictorial. For those who can afford it, a wood-engraved plate is a nice addition to a book. A lot of nineteenth-century bookplates are of heraldic family crests, printed from copper-plates. Such plates are well-known to collectors through publications such as Augustus Wollaston Franks’ 3-volume Catalogue of British and American Bookplates Bequeathed to the Trustees of the British Museum, 1903–4. I found quite a few of these in my books, and thanks to Google I was able to add some life to them and discover some interesting previous owners of my books. But I won't bore you by parading them here (well, maybe just one).

Found in an 1804 edition of Sterne: Thomas Philip de Grey (1781–1859), was a British Tory politician and statesman. He was First Lord of the Admiralty & a Knight of the Garter. A colonel-commandant of the Yorkshire Hussars and aide-de-camp to William IV and Queen Victoria, he served as Lord Lieutentant of Ireland in the 1840s. He was founding president of the Institute of British Architects in 1834. Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, is now part of English Heritage.

James Watson’s History of the Art of Printing (Edinburgh, 1713) passed through several hands before reaching our shelves. The title-page bears the ownership inscription Henry Goodwin his book 1736. The bookplate of Philip Absalom is a pierced woodcut with Caslon type. The book is listed in the sale catalogue of Absalom’s library, published by the London auctioneer Evans in 1841. Absalom’s main interest was heraldry. 

Dean Sage (1841–1902), a later owner, who had a simple engraved bookplate which could double as a calling card, was a prominent American collector of Waltoniana; he wrote a book on fishing and helped found Cornell University. His daughter married James Fennimore-Cooper.

The author, James Watson (1675–1722), was one of the first to write in English on the history of printing and does so, “as one carrying a Lantern in a dark Night, that I may communicate to others the light by which I myself walk.” Early writers tended to paraphrase one another, in fact Watson took his historical matter from Jean de la Caille’s Histoire de l’Imprimerie (Paris, 1689) and, interestingly, this copy has been marked up by an editor changing a few words and phrases in the text, clearly with a view to reprinting it in a slightly altered form.

Deaccessioned Library Books 

(N.B. Be sure they have a discard stamp in them!)

The Library Company of Philadelphia’s hand-trimmed bookplate was printed at the local paper, Zachariah Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, which ran from 1800 to 1839. The border of type ornaments is very ornate.

Mixed-face Victorian typography for the American Whig Society bookplate is more typical of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Society existed from 1784 ’til 1941. The College of New Jersey is known today as Princeton.

A ready-made letterpress bookplate from the Victorian era was purchased by Howard B. Smith. I like the ATF Rimmed Litho (for "LIBRARY") contrasted with the skeletal "—OF—". It's in a book from 1890, with the wonderful quote from Walter Scott: "...although many of my friends are poor arithmeticians, they are nearly all of them good book-keepers."

The Sawyers, who settled in Northern California, are possibly the same family who run the winery. I found this book in the Anderson Valley on 24 September 1995 (as my penciled note attests). It’s Samuel G. Goodrich’s Anecdotes of the Animal Kingdom, Boston, 1860. It was completely by chance I discovered it in a used bookstore and it was only when I opened it I found something I had been seeking blindly: a story called “Anecdotes of Ants,” which solved a puzzle that had been nagging me for decades, i.e. whether such a work existed.

From A Brief history of Selwyn College Library, we learn that in 1895 the Library comprised 9000 volumes, early donors being: Sarah Selwyn, Lady Martin, Bishop Abraham, Mrs William Selwyn; and especially the Rev. William Cooke. The Cooke bequest was substantial enough for the library to build a new wing. Cooke (1821–94) was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The book is Greswell’s study of the Early Parisian Press (London, Cadell & Davies, 1818), printed by Dean brothers of Manchester.

One of the great treasures of our library is the 8-volume Shûko Jisshu of Sadanobu Matsudaira (1759–1829), or Ten Categories of Collected Antiquities, containing hundreds of plates reproducing woodcuts, rubbings, armor, harnesses, writing implements, swords, musical instruments. The work was later collected in four volumes in 1908 and is one of the most important sources of visual information on pre-Tokugawa history. Our set, once the property of Daniel Butler Fearing, was deaccessioned from the Grolier Club Library in New York and bought for a song, from Muir Dawson.

There may be a case for owning a “strayed” library book. The long-derelict, now restored, Grand Hotel Villa de France — where Matisse painted the view from his window in 1912 and later home to Tennessee Williams — is in Tangier. Some tourist walked off with this fascinating work, Source Book on the Wreck of the Grosvenor by Percival Kirby, Cape Town, 1953, with its austere bookplate, now in my library.

Scholars and Scoundrels
From that dubious source Wikipedia we learn that Charles Kay Ogden (1889–1957) was a linguist, philosopher, and writer. Described as a polymath but also an eccentric and outsider, he is now remembered as the inventor and propagator of Basic English, an auxiliary international language of 850 words comprising a system that covers everything necessary for day-to-day purposes. In 1929 his Orthological Institute issued a recording of James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake. In 1932 Ogden published a translation of the Finnegans Wake passage into Basic English. Ogden collected a large number of books. His incunabula, manuscripts, papers of the Brougham family, and Jeremy Bentham collection were purchased by University College, London. The balance of his enormous personal library was purchased after his death by UCLA. This work is therefore a rare escapee from his library and it is also a linguistic curiosity: The Bothie of Toper-na-Fuosich by Arthur Clough, printed by Charles Whittingham at the Chiswick Press.

Adam Raymond Hausmann (1901–74) sensed the transience of his possession of Doctor Johnson A Play, by A. Edward Newton, hiring “JSF” to create a striking skeletal jester for his bookplate. Clearly a bibliophile, his copy of Joyce’s Chamber Music sold at Christie’s in 2005 for $3700.

Harry Buxton Forman (1842–1917). Though well-known as a Shelley scholar and bibliographer, Forman will live in infamy for his connection to T. J. Wise and the dissemination of forgeries of editiones principes by English authors of the nineteenth century. His bookplate is in a set of Tristram Shandy which I own. Sterne’s masterpiece too was subjected to piracy which must have appealed to the rogue Forman. Sterne even signed all copies of the first printing of Volume 5 to thwart piracy. Interestingly, here the forger was trying to fool himself because the set comprises six volumes of the original printing: the remaining three volumes have been broken out of a later one-volume printing and bound to match the early printings. According to the Buxton Forman sale catalogue vols. 7 and 9 of his copy also have Sterne’s signature. It sold for $7.50, incidentally, and the catalogue says that vols. 1 & 2 are second editions and the others firsts. So he must have had 2 sets. It’s described as being in worn old calf. My set, the bogus set, is in marbled paper over boards.

Because we are based in the University town of Berkeley it’s natural that there are a lot of books here and sometimes unusual connections between the books we buy and former owners. Leo Olschki’s Le Livre Illustré au XVème Siècle (Florence, Leo S. Olschki, 1926), bears the modest bookplate of Herbert McLean Evans in red Futura type. Evans (1882–1971) was an embryologist and Professor of Anatomy at the University. In his research he discovered Vitamin E. It’s interesting that he took time off from dissecting rats and mice to contemplate this collection of Italian woodcuts.

At a $1 sale at the University Library recently I found a first American edition of an Alberto Moravia novel. It has the bookplate of Ruth & Mark Schorer: an etching of a man climbing a stepladder to the moon. It’s a reproduction of a work by William Blake, called “I want! I want!” executed in 1793, here reprinted from a zinc with Bulmer type. Unfortunately this plate was attached with acidic glue which has discolored it. Mark Schorer (1908–77) wrote a book about Blake called The Politics of Vision in 1946. He chaired the English Department at Berkeley in the turbulent sixties. He also wrote a biography of Sinclair Lewis and many short stories that were published in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Though just a paperback catalogue, the Exhibition of Books at the Festival of Britain, 1951, has the bookplate of George Laban Harding (1893–1976). It’s a wood engraving with Caslon type. Harding was not just a book collector but also an authority on the history of printing. He collected every single newspaper item he came across that mentioned anything to do with the press in the West (which to Harding included Tahiti and Hawaii). His archives, now in the Kemble Collection at at the California Historical Society, are a trove of information. He was a student of Updike at Harvard and recalled taking a seminar with Bill Dwiggins which consisted of stack tours and long lunches. He wrote books about Agustin Zamorano, the first printer in California, Charles A. Murdoch, the first printer of taste in the West, and biographies and bibliographies.

It’s quite common for bookplates to be added to a collection posthumously. It adds coherence, especially when the books become absorbed into a larger collection. I work as a volunteer in the Kemble Collection on Western Printing at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, which houses several collections, the core being the library of William E. Loy (1847–1906), an historian of American printing & typefounding who built an important collection of trade periodicals, type specimen books and other material related to the printing and graphic trades in American in the nineteenth century. When his collection was acquired for CHS by George L. Harding, Roger Levenson of Tamalpais Press printed the plate (in Bell type) which adorns the books. Loy was my neighbor (He died in 1906 and his house was bull-dozed in the 1960s, but he lived round the corner from me) & I have spent many hours with his books and periodicals. I wrote a short biography of him as the introduction to his work on Nineteenth-century American Designers and Engravers of Type, which I co-edited with Stephen O. Saxe.

To be continued yesterday ...


  1. These are some amazing bookplates! I wish to own an original one day. I hope that sometime we can find a way to print in the old style like this here in Ogden printing shop.

  2. Good Morning,
    Thank you for a most informative posting.
    Lew Jaffe


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