Ex Libris Fitzhugh: Heraldry in Bookplates

Do you remember learning how to spell your name when you were younger and the following excitement of scrawling your name onto every paper, book cover, and notebook with a crayon? It was your statement of ownership and confidence as an individual. Now, we think of the permanence of that statement. The bookplate is a mature artistic statement of ownership found throughout history. Bookplates are estimated to have originated during the 15th century in Germany as symbols of ownership and are important to provenance within rare books (1). Ex Libris Fitzhugh, a temporary exhibit curated for display in the Toppan Classroom space during the spring and summer of 2021, provides a glimpse into the importance of heraldry within statements of ownership like bookplates.

Celestina, Charlotte Smith, 1791
J. Comyns Wood bookplate on front pastedown. Intaglio etching and engraving combination of heraldic shield. Unicorn, embattled line, wheat, hand in gules, and arrowheads. Fields of gules, or, and azure. “Mallemmori Quammutare”, I prefer death to change. Wreath and Ribbon style with Festoon.
(Fitzhugh Collection)

You might be wondering what a bookplate is, and how it is any different than signing your name. A bookplate is a print, made through printmaking processes such as relief (woodcut), intaglio (etching and engraving), and lithography. The most common print process used was intaglio, where combinations of etching and engraving into copper plates created finely detailed prints that resembled pen drawings. In etching, the copper plate is coated in a ground, in which a stylus is used to draw into it. When the ground is removed in this drawing process, acid is used to agitate the uncovered portions of copper, creating recessed lines where ink would be placed. Etched lines tend to appear fuzzier, while engraved lines, which are carved directly into a copper plate with a burin, tend to be sharper and more clear. 

Bookplates typically identify who owned the book and can be dated based on the style in which they were made such as Wreath and Ribbon, popularized from 1770-1810, or Armorial which was widely used from 1800-1900. Many bookplates do not just contain the name of the individual or library, they also include accompanying imagery, heraldic shields being a popular identifier. The ability to know who owned a book, tracing their family lineage and possibly where their library was located is valuable in understanding the life of a book. What if Archivists in the future were to look at your library? Would it be important if they were able to say that you owned the book they were examining, the answer is yes! Bookplates provide a rich way to consider the history of ownership, because we are also able to see who the individual that owned the book was and how they depicted themselves.

Poems, William Jones, 1777
Toft Hall bookplate on front pastedown. Intaglio etching and engraving of heraldic shield. Lion rampant, fleur-de-lis, and a stag upon a wreath. Elements of the shield are on a field of azure and or. Lion and one half of the stag are in gules. The Fleur-de-lis and the other half of stag are in or. Armorial style.
(Fitzhugh Collection)

Heraldry is a term we do not often think of today, but it was important for many Western societies beginning in the 12th century through the last two centuries. Heraldry is the practice of designing coats of arms, in which emblems like heraldic shields, become status symbols. Ex Libris Fitzhugh sought to examine heraldry within bookplates, and what heraldic and animal symbolism, color choice, mottoes, and style were present within each print.  

A key consideration of intaglio bookplates is that they are made using black ink, omitting color, but the heraldic color order and appearance is important, which lead to a development of hatching guides in the 15th century to denote heraldic coloring of sable (black), argent (silver), or (gold), gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), and purpure (purple) (2). In the late 1400’s and 1500’s it became fashionable for supporting figures of animals, such as lions and unicorns, to be included in coats of arms as additional symbols of status, also becoming signs of ranks which led to rules for their use (2). Advances in armor made the use of shields in combat unnecessary, but noble families continued the use of coats of arms in heraldry, leading to the establishment of the College of Arms in 1483 by Richard III (2). As time progressed, coats of arms and heraldic shields became popularized for design and ownership purposes like bookplates. Other aesthetic liberties and rules were then created for these uses.

Fables, Mr. Dryden, 1721
Robert Rutherford bookplate on front pastedown. Intaglio etching of heraldic/pictorial shield. Birds and crescent on argent with an orle in gules. Crescent is a symbol of the second son. Utilizes familial heraldic imagery of four birds and an orle.
(Fitzhugh Collection)

What if you were to have a bookplate, what do you think yours would look like? If your family has a coat of arms, yours might follow some of its elements like Robert Rutherford’s bookplate did! Many of the elements within heraldic bookplates can be traced back through the owner’s family. Ultimately, bookplates are an interesting and informative source in uncovering the history of a book and whom it was owned by, but they are also an artistic and deeply personal statement of ownership that many of us can continue to resonate with today.

  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bookplate.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 20, 2011. (accessed March 26, 2021) https://www.britannica.com/topic/bookplate.
  2. “Heraldry.” In Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students, edited by Paul F. Grendler, 152-153. Vol. 2. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. Gale In Context: World History (accessed February 26, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3409200218/WHIC?u=wylrc_uwyoming&sid=WHIC&xid=91a95de1.

Post contributed by Alexandra Box, Toppan Rare Books Library intern.


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