Bookplates: history and development

Bookplates: history and development

Bookplates are an invaluable source of information when tracing the provenance of books in special collections. Bookplates began to be used during the 16th century and their styles have changed over the centuries, another useful way to identify ownership. From early letterpress style ‘labels’ to elaborate armorial plates, there is a rich history of illustration and design. We have some interesting bookplates within our rare books collections, some showing their direct association with the college and its history, others relating to people who have previously owned these books but who have no connection with the College or the wider University.  

Many early bookplates are categorised as armorial, depicting the arms or crest of the owners, often without even a name since it was assumed they would be known by the arms alone. These became increasingly elaborate during the 17th and early 18th centuries, as in this example belonging to John Somers, Baron Somers (1651-1716): 

An etched image of a shield and armorial beasts on a bookplate

These styles are known as ‘early armorial’ and in fact there was a pattern book which was frequently used to create designs – known as the Brighton Book (its 640 armorial bookplates are in the British Museum's Franks Collection).  

Styles changed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, becoming more illustrative. So-called “bookpile” bookplates were popular during the late 17th and early 18th century, the first thought to be that belonging to Arthur Charlett, designed by Samuel Pepys – in fact, this example is very similar to his design. Usually names were incorporated in the bookplate but sometimes only initials were used in a cipher style with no other clue as to who the owner was: 

An etched image with initials shown surrounded by stacked books

Another popular style which continued into the 19th century was the pictorial or landscape design where arms and crests are eschewed for a more romantic style, frequently depicting urns, monuments or other scenic views: 

An etched image of a landscape scene with ruins

Bookplates help to track history of the books’ ownership, often through several hands. In this copy of a 1565 bible now here at HMC, there are two bookplates (interestingly the later owner has chosen not to paste his over the earlier plate, something which is often seen): 

Two bookplates are shown, one above the other.  The bookplates are different, one being a shield shape and more decorative and the other plain.

The armorial shield style bookplate of Cornelius Heathcote Rodes (1793?-1844) is very different to the printed label style of Samuel Maitland, even though Maitland died only 22 years after Rodes, in 1866. 

The study and collection of bookplates began in the second half of the 19th century, with major collectors such as Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks contributing to the identification and classification of bookplates – his collection (and extensive catalogue) of 35,000 bookplates was left to the British Museum