By Mark Ferson
A bookplate (or ex libris) is a label placed inside a book to mark ownership. The rise of bookplates occurred concurrently with the advent of printing from moveable type, whilst the collecting of bookplates arose in Britain in the early nineteenth-century as an offshoot of the genteel pastime of collecting coats of arms into albums. The Ex Libris Society was formed in London in 1891 and lasted into the early years of the twentieth-century. In Australia, bookplate collecting and owning a bookplate became the height of fashion among the cultured between the World Wars. In recent years, there has again been increasing interest in bookplates among book lovers and artists, and societies have been formed in Melbourne and Sydney.
Australian Ex Libris Society
On 18 May 1923, an exhibition opened at Tyrrell’s Galleries, Sydney, with over 200 Australian and overseas bookplates. William Moore’s notice in the Daily Telegraph of 2 June 1923 repeated the hope of organiser John Lane Mullins that the interest aroused would quickly lead to the formation of a bookplate society in Sydney. Indeed, within a month, a meeting was held at Tyrrell’s where Lyster Ormsby ‘detailed the scheme for the formation of the Australian Ex Libris Society … seconded [by] Percy Neville Barnett, [and] carried unanimously’, whilst the constitution was approved at the July meeting. The aim of the Society was:
“To promote and extend the use of Ex Libris to develop their artistic character, to encourage the co-operation of artists, to promote exchanges among Australian and other Collectors, to hold Exhibitions of Ex Libris, and to promote the publication of literature on the subject.”
Soon after, William Moore’s article ‘The charm of the bookplate’ in the August 1923 number of Art in Australia brought before readers 57 Australian pictorial designs from the previous 25 years. The Society remained in the public eye.
At the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York to open the new federal capital of Canberra in 1927, both were presented with a bookplate designed by Adrian Feint, whilst a gift of a linocut design by G. D. Perrottet made to the young Princess Elizabeth in 1934 also attracted much publicity. As well, P. Neville Barnett sent copies of all of his sumptuous bookplate books to the Royal Library.
An annual booklet was issued listing Australian bookplates which had come to notice and reproducing a few, often tipped-in. Two further series were begun, a Journal and Bookplate artists, but in each case only a single issue appeared. Sydney meetings included talks provided by artists, collectors and others. During the 1930s, two bookplate competitions were mounted. The annual dinner for 1938 held at a Sydney café was a special occasion when Lane Mullins was presented with a portrait bookplate etched by J. B. Godson to mark his 15 years as society president.
From its inception, the Society, whilst based in Sydney, encouraged membership in other states, which peaked at 185 in 1930. Lane Mullins’ death in early 1939 and the outbreak of World War II led to the demise of the Society.
New South Wales Bookplate Club
Dissatisfaction with the perceived poor status of artists led, in 1932, to the breakaway of Australian Ex Libris Society members led by Frank Clune to form the New South Wales Bookplate Club.
The Club’s International Bookplate Competition captured the interest of all. Prominent supporters donated prize money in 13 categories. The competition was advertised internationally, with a notice appearing in the July 1932 Bulletin of the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers. The Sydney newspaper Smith’s Weekly (8 October 1932) publicised the competition with a facetious article entitled ‘NSW Bookplate Club lifts depression with £41,’ noting that the competition was ‘an effort to encourage artists who are particularly affected by the present economic conditions’. Entries by 35 Australian and nine New Zealand artists, and 21 North American and Continental artists, were exhibited at David Jones’ Gallery, Sydney, in 1933.
The Club issued two quality publications: the Founders’ brochure - No. 1 containing brief articles by Camden Morrisby about A. Feint, G. D. Perrottet and G. G. Shaw, illustrated with 12 original bookplates; John B. Godson. Bookplates, with nine original bookplates, and a list of members as at June 1933 was produced with the assistance of naval hydrographer and book designer Lieut. G. C. Ingleton.
The Club failed to markedly increase the status of artists and continuing financial problems led to its fading from existence during 1935.
Australian Bookplate Club
After the demise of the Australian Ex Libris Society, interest remained strong in Victoria. On 25 November 1941 a meeting was called by ‘organiser’ John Gartner to form the Australian Bookplate Club with R. H. Croll elected as president and Gartner as secretary-treasurer. After six months, the club had 23 Victorian members, and 16 from the rest of Australia and the United States.
Gartner utilised his typographic skills and his own Hawthorn Press to develop a vigorous, if brief, publication program. Following the Constitution and list of foundation members, he issued the Club’s Newsletter in 1943 and 1944, and checklists of the bookplates of Eric Thake and Eirene Mort. He also published under his own name a checklist of the Victorian etcher William Hunter. However, probably as a result of Croll’s long illness compounded with the effects of World War II, there is no record that the Club survived beyond 1944.
Australian Bookplate Society
After a hiatus of some decades, interest in bookplates in Australia began to increase in the 1970s and 1980s, largely as a result of the bookplate commissions and collecting activities of art patron Patrick Corrigan. In this period also, Melbourne publisher Robert C. Littlewood produced a number of monographs on bookplate artists. At the 10 September 1997 meeting in Melbourne of the Ephemera Society of Australia, Littlewood together with collector Edwin Jewell announced the formation of the Australian Bookplate Society, with newsletters issued in 2002 and 2003. After a period of quiescence, the Society is focused on promoting the art of the bookplate through competitions and a publication program, and the Keith Wingrove Memorial Trust Australian Bookplate Design competition was conducted in 2013 with many entries from Europe, Asia and Australia.
New Australian Bookplate Society
With the Australian Bookplate Society dormant, a need was felt to start an association based in Sydney whereby members would be able to communicate their interests in bookplates through meetings and the organ of a regular bulletin. The New Australian Bookplate Society was launched on 22 October 2005 by artist and gallerist Elisabeth Bastian and enthusiast Mark Ferson with an exhibition of bookplates held at the Stop Laughing This is Serious Gallery, Blackheath. A meeting to form the Society took place in Sydney on 22 October 2006 when the draft constitution was accepted and office bearers were elected. The aims of the Society were ‘to raise awareness of, and promote, bookplates as both a historic and a contemporary art form, and to bring together individuals with an interest in designing, owning, studying or collecting bookplates’.
An illustrated, full-colour Newsletter is published each quarter; a website features articles on interesting bookplates, a gallery of the designs of artist-members and an annual bibliography of articles published in Australia on bookplates. Annual general meetings consist of formal business followed by an address from a guest speaker. In 2013 the first successful ‘Show and Tell’ was held and the Society was invited by Kogarah City Council (Sydney) to mount an exhibition which was held over 22 July to 11 August and opened by Pat Corrigan AM. At the time of writing, the Society has over 70 members, mainly in Australia and including a small number from New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the internet:
(Published in BOOKFARE, the newsletter of the Australian & New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers (ANZAAB), presented here by permission of ANZAAB and the author.)