The Bookplate Collection of the Gutenberg Museum
Bookplates have existed for more than 500 years. It was soon after the introduction of letterpress printing that these small prints, which could be produced in a large number, started to appear.
Bearing the book owner’s name the bookplate is meant to be pasted into a book. Thereby the possession of single books or even of whole libraries can be aesthetically demonstrated. Pride of ownership, artistic sense, the book lover’s wish to protect his treasures from stealing and his fear of not getting a lent book back encouraged the creation of bookplates. It is the harmonious combination of text and illustration which makes bookplates that are also known as ex-libris so fascinating. The Latin words “ex libris” (from the books of), which often precede the proper name, gave the name to this complete genre of graphic art, though there are also ex-libris known which do not name the book owners, but inform in a book that was given as a gift of the donor’s name.
Traditionally ex-libris are to be found inside the front covers of books. The oldest examples were created in the German-speaking area towards the end of the 15th century. In the course of the 16th century Humanism and Reformation favoured the distribution of books and with them the distribution of bookplates throughout Europe. Early ex-libris show the coats of arms of their wealthy owners. New motifs were soon to follow: during the Baroque period, allegorical pictures, illustrations with plenty of symbols, portraits, and detailed depictions of library rooms became especially popular. During the Rococo period, shell work ornament, putti, flower and fruit arrangements were appreciated and often depicted. In contrast, we find some time later signets with the strict forms of classicism or merely monograms.
The history of bookplates is art history in small format. From around 1500 until the mid 17th century, the art of ex-libris had its first heyday. Well-known artists like Dürer, Holbein, Beham, Cranach, and Amman also created small prints like bookplates. In Baroque the works of Chodowiecki, Meil, and Nilson were particularly striking. After a period when bookplates seemed to fall into oblivion, it was the 19th century which generated the new, stunning works of the English Pre-Raphaelites. Classicism and Jugendstil, between 1890 and 1925, created the “golden age” of ex-libris art and this especially in the German-speaking area. It is estimated that about 100,000 bookplates were made at that time.
Enthusiastic reflections on local life in the Middle Ages and on traditional manual skills, flag-waving, and the new self-confidence of the educated bourgeoisie of Wilhelminian time gave fresh impetus to heraldry which soon had an influence on ex-libris. So a great many bookplates depicting coats of arms began to emerge; Hupp, Doepler the Younger, Rheude, Otto, and Hildebrandt were among their outstanding artists.
Due to ex-libris owners’ individual wishes and artists’ personal styles, the motifs rapidly began to include all kinds of fields. Since then love and death, eroticism and humour, scenery, still life, human being and animal, nature and architecture, occupation, hobby, and world-view have been related to in these small prints. Also “telling” ex-libris (illustrating their owners’ names) were created in great quantities. Completely typographically produced bookplates began to find their customers and until today they have met with wide approval. In addition to ex-libris which were merely made for use, more and more “luxury ex-libris” (serving as sought-after collectors’ items and exchange objects) began to appear. Famous artists like Bayros, Behmer, Fingesten, Orlik, Geiger, Klinger, Ubbelohde, Vogeler, and Kubin gave a new impetus to ex-libris production.
All kinds of print methods and duplicating processes were used for the creation of ex-libris; they included, among others, wood and copper engraving, etching, lithography, collotype, offset printing and computer composition.
Bookplates never stopped exerting a strong fascination. National and international associations of collectors see to and support the art of ex-libris. In Germany the “Deutsche Exlibris Gesellschaft” (German Ex-libris Association) or “DEG”, which was founded in 1891, has been the central contact point again since 1949 (www.exlibris-deg.de); coordination office of the DEG: Birgit Göbel-Stiegler M.A., Joachim-Karnatz-Allee 19, D-10557 Berlin, tel. +49 (0) 30 / 20 67 19 90; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bookplates offer the possibility to get rather easily a considerable collection of small prints over the years and thereby getting to know ex-libris owners and artists from all over the world and making friends with like-minded people. The value of such a collection depends on the age, techniques, and the artistic qualities of its bookplates. Important public collections containing the estates of well-known collectors are to be found at British Museum (London), Gutenberg-Museum (Mainz), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Munich), Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Nuremberg), and Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna/Austria); also the Frederikshavn Kunstmuseum (Frederikshavn/Denmark) has a considerable collection of mainly modern ex-libris. The most assiduous private collectors own collections with about 100,000 bookplates. The collection of Mario De Filippis from Italy is registered in the “Guinness World Records” with a number of bookplates that is even far bigger than that.