`A virtuous and commendable proceeding'
James Keenan's business card is in the form of one of those ``ex libris'' bookplates that book owners stick inside their volumes for identification purposes. His own collecting of such plates has led to exhibitions of them, and we asked him for a few words about this art form that is flourishing now no less than a century ago. He has also kindly supplied the bookplates that are shown here with their designers' names. MORE than 100 years ago, J. Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), had harsh words for the borrowers of books: ``The broken sets, which they have caused, give them no twinge of remorse. The gaps which they have left in innocent homes break not their sleep at night.'' In 1985 the infamous book borrower is still a universal problem. One possible solution, as Lord de Tabley suggests, is the presence of an ``ex libris'' -- a bookplate declaring ``from the library of'' -- affixed to the inside of the front cover of
``Our forefathers seem to have suffered from the ravages of this insect -- we cannot call it -- man,'' says Lord de Tabley, continuing the attack on the book borrower in his ``Guide to the Study of Bookplates,'' 1880. ``Book-larceny seems to have reared its front of brass at a sufficiently early period. The ex-libris is the mature act of book-preservation, and to engrave thereon some fulmination against the borrower, is a virtuous and commendable proceeding.''
My interest in bookplates developed when I was providing a design service to business and professional people in Boston. One client was an attorney who shared an appreciation for fine quality in printing. Once, when I was at his office, he spoke of his dream of owning a bookplate. He hoped I'd undertake the design of it and, being of a curious nature, I accepted. His thoughts were well organized -- he had been pondering the idea for 40 years! He proceeded to dictate a list of his and his wife's joint i nterests. I then approached an artist whose style he admired, and seven months later the bookplate was completed.
Bookplates have come from the hands of the world's finest artists and engravers since the mid-15th century. In the beginning, the ex libris was primarily typographic or heraldic, I found, but it has since become more of a personal expression of the owner's individuality and interests utilizing a variety of mediums. This miniature graphic art is born of a desire to show pride in the books of one's library -- to identify and embellish a collection.
The diversity of inscriptions directed against borrowers of books reveals the desperate plight of the book owner. A certain Jean Argus had a design depicting an ominous eye with the warning: ``Should you fail to return this book, the Argus eye at you will look.'' A motto from the ex libris of Sherlock Willis reads: ``The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again.'' Sir Walter Scott's bookplate offered this note: ``Please return this book; I find that though many of my friends are
poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.''
Several visits to the Print Department of the Boston Public Library provided my first exposure to a large selection of bookplates. Many are by American masters of copper engraving who worked at the turn of this century: Edwin D. French, Sidney L. Smith, Frederick Spenceley, and J. Winfred Spenceley are among my favorites. The collecting of ex libris by artists and booklovers everywhere began in the late 19th century. Collections are built through the exchange of duplicate pieces; naturally you must beg in with your own personal ex libris. Often collectors will have dozens or even hundreds of bookplates designed for the purposes of trading. An international network of bookplate enthusiasts is linked through 27 ex libris societies.
If you have ever dreamed of owning a custom-designed bookplate, you will find that it is easily accomplished. You can commission many well-known American book illustrators and engravers -- especially now with the current rise of interest in the book arts in the US. There are also a number of talented artists in all parts of the world willing to assist in translating your ideas into a bookplate. Examples from the past five centuries are reproduced in ``A Treasury of Bookplates from the Renaissance to th e Present,'' by Fridolf Johnson.
A few years ago I sought to renew an old tradition of the early American bookplate societies, which had mounted annual exhibitions to tour museums and libraries for the purpose of advancing the art form. I addressed letters to all of my fellow members in the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers, inviting samples and suggestions for a members' show. (This society was established in Washington, D.C., in 1922. Today it is under the leadership of Audrey Spencer Arellanes of Alhambra, C alif. She edits a quarterly newsletter, ``Bookplates in the News,'' as well as an impressive bookplate annual.) The generous response indicated the camaraderie that can grow from this rewarding hobby.
The Boston Athenaeum, a member of the society and a leading patron of the bookplate, sponsored the resulting show of contemporary world ex libris, held in the fall of 1984. It included 450 pieces by 200 artists representing 28 countries. It was during the time of this exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum that I received an exciting letter from Ichigoro Uchida, who is a member of the American bookplate society and a co-director of the Nippon Exlibris Association in Tokyo. Mr. Uchida told of a traveli ng show of contemporary Japanese bookplates which had been assembled by the Nippon group in 1982. This turned out to be good news for the R"ubel Asiatic Research Collection at Harvard University's new Sackler Museum -- 500 selected pieces from this show are now on exhibition there in ``Ex Libris Japan.''
The Japanese multicolor ex libris is executed in the tradition of the well-known Japanese woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries. Several colors are used and an individual block is cut for each one. Perfect registration of colors is accomplished through carefully hand-pulled prints, the final print being a masterpiece.
There are many images which influence the design of Japanese ex libris. They range from popular folk art themes to landscapes, and from parasols to cherry blossoms -- all in miniature form.
I only wish Lord de Tabley were here to see all the ways his ex libris descendants have found to go about his ``virtuous and commendable proceeding.''