"Do you want these bookplates?" inquired Mr. Langdon Warner in a letter dated 12 October 1917. He wrote from the Pennsylvania Museum, where he had just assumed the directorship, to his colleague Frederick Allan Whiting, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Warner continued, "We have no collection here, and F.G. Hall the artist may one day be famous." It is with this gift of nine bookplates that the collection of ex libris at the Cleveland Museum of Art was initiated.
Whiting, for his part, appeared to be at a loss as to the collocation of such objects. Within several days he composed letters to colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library regarding the subject of bookplate accessions and cataloging, writing, "Are they filed by artist or subject?" then adding, "Or are they not considered exhibition material and filed in the library?"
It is a question that is answered, but perhaps not fully. A considerable number of bookplates, including over a hundred acquired in a gift from Arthur D. Brooks, entered the Museum collection. They are, to be sure, filed under the title of the owner of the ex libris, as Bookplate: Arthur Dewitt Brooks. However, many years later, a discovery in the postcard collection added mystery to this story.
Five years ago, while packing up the books in the old library, librarians discovered several un-filed boxes of postcards. The Ingalls Library maintains an extensive collection of postcards, including images of art and architecture from around the world. Before digital images brought these views to our computer screens, librarians carefully arranged collections of postcards and photographs, both geographically and by subject, for study by curators and scholars. This extra collection of postcards joined the exodus from the old library to the current Ingalls Library. On closer examination of the boxes, librarians discovered a treasure trove in weathered, dusty envelopes. With careful handwritten notes indicating the donor and artists wherever possible, a minor collection of bookplates emerged from between the rubber banded stacks of postcards.
Bookplates, or ex libris, are marks of ownership in the form of printed labels, affixed to the inside covers of books. Ex libris is a latin phrase that translates to from the books. It is printed, either plainly or with decoration on many bookplates. At a time when building a personal library required significant investment, a bookplate served as a notice of ownership to anyone who borrowed or bought a volume.
The earliest bookplates date to 15th century Germany, where the practice became popular quickly. The phenomena of ex libris extended to France and Great Britain by the 16th century. Styles of bookplates followed fashion of the day through the 17th and 18th century, with Chippendale and Rococo embellishments replacing Jacobean. Armorial bookplates proved most common, especially in Great Britain, in the early 19th century.
There is a certain wit to bookplate art, that is slightly, if only slightly, subtle. Canting, a visual pun borrowed from heraldry, is a common element. The style is even seen in the first known bookplates. There are numerous examples of this in the Ingalls Library bookplate collection, including the Squire bookplate and Cock bookplate.
Evidence of more traditional examples of heraldry and armorial bookplates persist as well, such as the Wimbledon bookplate.
As the popularity of the ex libris continued in America through the 19th and 20th centuries, the pictorial style proved a favorite. Bookplates of this era reflect more of the lives and tastes of the owners, as is the case with the MacBain bookplate.
The Ingalls Library bookplate collection includes significant pieces by Edwin Davis French, Amy Sacker, and Senor Ismael Smith.
In the Whiting correspondence, there are letters from the family of Kenyon Cox, donating the pieces in the library's collection. The bookplates represent the final work of the artist.
By the end of Whiting's tenure at the Museum the collecting of bookplates had concluded. Fortunately these fascinating bookplates are now available for perusal in the Ingalls Library.