An Overview of Principal Styles of Bookplates in Britain 1600-2000

Early Printed Labels and Heraldic Bookplates 1580-1680: In the 16th century bookplates flourished in Germany, several early ones having been engraved by Durer, but there were at that time few examples in the British Isles: Early Dated Printed Label Cardinals Wolsey and Beaton used painted coats of arms (though only single examples are known), some of Nicholas Bacon's books donated to Cambridge University were marked with a woodcut of his arms first used in Legh's Accedence of Armory, Sir Thomas Tresham used an engraved armorial bookplate, and Joseph Holand's armorial was a drawing, in the style of Theodore de Bry. This was a time when ownership was just as likely to have been marked by a handwritten inscription on the titlepage, or by a gold tooled armorial bookstamp on the leather covers of a book.

Early Armorial

Early Armorial 1680-1715: There are rather too few examples of bookplates in the reign of Charles II for the term "Carolean" to have much meaning as a style, but see the bookplate of Edward Bysshe in the gallery of bookplates of heralds. Armorial bookplates only began to be used in any significant number at the end of the 17th century, when engravers such as White and Loggan were active. During the reigns of William & Mary and Queen Anne, a group of engravers based in Holborn, London worked in this Early Armorial style. Actively promoting bookplates to the nobility, gentry and the professional men in London's legal world, the workshop seems to have prepared blanks containing just the shield and mantling, ready for the addition of arms, crest and motto. Where there was no entitlement to supporters, a leafy mantling tumbled down each side of the arms. Often the crest is too small for the space left available, or a motto ribbon may be left unused. A pattern book of this workshop has survived, known as the Brighton Book (its 640 armorial bookplates are in the British Museum's Franks Collection).

Jacobean style of bookplate

Jacobean Armorial 1715-1745: The characteristic frame, having a symmetrical cartouche ornamented with scrolls and swags, is reminiscent of the woodwork of Grinling Gibbons during the reign of James II, or of memorial tablets carved in stone at that time. The name Jacobean is a misnomer in the sense that James had left the throne long before bookplates in this style were current. They often have fishscales or brickwork as a background pattern to the arms. Shells, cherubs' heads and terminal figures sometimes feature, or there may be animals standing to each side, as decoration rather than heraldic supporters. Sometimes the arms are placed on a horizontal shelf or bracket. This style remained popular for a long period. Some of the Irish examples are delightfully inventive and quaint. It was at this period that prize plates (premiums) came into use by schools when presenting books as rewards to successful students, and that allegorical and masonic subjects found favour.

Allegorical by G. Vertue

Allegorical by Fougeron

Masonic by Cole
Chippendale bookplate

Chippendale Armorial 1740-1770: By far the most numerous of 18th century bookplates, this florid style derives from French rococo, popularised in Thomas Chippendale's furniture designs. This style is named after him, though he was never an engraver. The asymmetric shield stands within a cartouche of shellwork, surrounded by leaves and flowers; and many of these bookplates incorporate charmingly curious pictorial elements such as books, inkwells, cherubs, sheep, and much else, often reflecting the owner's occupation: a caduceus for a medical man, measuring instruments for a surveyor, set square and plumb line for a freemason, cannon balls, flags and other battlefield material for a military officer. Behind the arms we may occasionally see a landscape as background, or perhaps shipping scenes. Illustrated here is a bookplate formerly claimed to be of the celebrated landscape gardner, Capability Brown, but much more likely to have been of his son, who bore the same name. By the 1770's, rococo was out of fashion, and later styles were more restrained.

Festoon, Wreath and Ribbon, and Spade Shield Armorial 1770-1810: The swags of flowers, leaves or husks, hanging down from wall pins or from a ribbon, are the festoons. The arms are generally borne on a spade-shaped shield, underneath which may be two or more wreaths, crossing over and tied together with a ribbon. Strictly speaking, a Festoon Armorial has just the swags hanging down, and a Wreath and Ribbon Armorial comprises just the shield and wreaths below. In about the period 1795-1820 the spade shield was often left unadorned, so the style became simply a Spade Shield Armorial, sometimes placed in a garter.

Wreath & ribbon without festoon

Festoon, wreath & ribbon

Spade shield on a beaded teatray
Bookplate by Thomas Bewick for J. Anderson Junr.

Landscape and Pictorial 1780-1820: Views of ruined buildings, tombs and urns were quite popular in the 1780's and 1790's. Where an armorial was required, the shield was placed against a rock or tree and was often secondary to the main design. Thomas Bewick's landscape scenes, cut on the endgrain of the wood block, found a wide following in the thirty years spanning the start of the 19th century (as comprehensively recorded in Nigel Tattersfield's "Bookplates by Beilby and Bewick", pub. 1999 by The British Library).

Urn & armorial

Spade shield armorial

c.1820s label
Plain Armorial

Plain Armorial 1800-1900: Most 19th century bookplates are unadorned armorials, unrelieved by any pictorial element and with no attempt to impart any life or three-dimensional quality to the arms. The heraldic stationers of the 19th century produced thousands of these, as well as catering to their clients' other needs, such as wax seals and signet rings. Sometimes no effort was made to ensure that the heraldry was accurate, or that the owner was entitled to bear arms. Collectors thus refer perjoratively to these plain armorials as "diesinkers", meaning that they were produced in quantity with little artistic flair. A few of these plain armorials were for well known people, but often those who distinguished themselves in public life did not trouble to obtain a bookplate, or if they did, it was unremarkable in design. However, once the habit of using an exlibris was established within a family, we may find the same arms and motto is use over several generations; so although this style holds little merit for the bookplate collector, it can nonetheless be of value to family historians interested in quarterings, impalements, escutcheons of pretence and cadency marks. Ilustrated here is the bookplate of the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel.

Two crest plates of Isambard Kingdom Brunel Two crest plates of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Crests: These two crest plates were not used by the famous engineer Brunel, but by his son of the same name. It may sometimes be quite difficult to identify an anonymous crest bookplate. This is where the catalogue of the Franks Collection can be of value, by reference to its heraldic index of anonymous plates and crests. However, there are many plain armorials and crests that are categorised by collectors as "Not in Franks". A union catalogue (see Projects) will help but will never completely determine ownership. Indeed, sometimes a bookplate was used by succeeding generations within a family, rather than by one individual owner.

Seal Armorial, from 1800: A more pleasing alternative, referring back to medieval wax seals, was to adopt a circular design, with the arms centrally and either a motto or the ownership inscription running round the outside. In the example illustrated (F.13781), we see neither "Ex Libris" (from the books) nor "Sigillum" (the seal) but "Arma" (the arms) "Ricardi Harington" (of Richard Harington) "et Cecilie uxoris ejus" (and of Cecily his wife).

Seal Armorial


Seal Armorial

Architectural 1840-1860: It is no surprise that Gothic elements feature in the exlibris of Augustus Pugin. In other bookplates, such as those by Henry Le Keux and the brothers Orlando and Llewellyn Jewitt, the design is often circular and incorporates tracery similar to that found in church windows.

Golden Age Armorials 1890-1910: There was an upsurge of interest in bookplates at the end of the Victorian era. Foremost amongst the engravers on copper was Charles William Sherborn, who created over 500 bookplates. There were mostly armorial, as was the etched work of George W. Eve. Much pictorial work, often depicting the owner's home and interests, was commissioned by upper class English society from the Bumpus and Truslove and Hanson bookshops, who employed a choice of engravers, including Harrison and Osmond.

by C.W. Sherborn

by G.W. Eve

by J.A.C. Harrison

Pictorials by Book Illustrators and Others 1880-1910: This flowering of interest in bookplates coincided with a time when greater attention was being given to the art of decorating books attractively, and the same designers were often active in both fields.

by Robert Anning Bell

by Henry Ospovat

by Jessie M King

20th Century Pictorials: The trend has been away from armorial bookplates, and we see here some fine engraved work by Eric Gill, Stephen Gooden and George Taylor Friend.

by Eric Gill

by Stephen Gooden

by George T. Friend

Calligraphic 1950-Present Day: The writing-masters of the eighteenth century displayed their skill in a riot of extended flourishes and curlicues. 20th century calligraphic bookplates have been far more restrained. Gill's engraved work on wood inspired Reynolds Stone ( -19xx), Leo Wyatt and many others, including Will Carter and David Kindersley, whose calligraphic labels were, in fact, drawn, not engraved. Some other wood- engravers following in this vein have been Diana Bloomfield, Derek Riley, Reg Boulton.

by Reynolds Stone

by Kindersley

by Wyatt

We can show here only a slight glimpse of the range of bookplate design. Each artist develops his own style which becomes readily recognisable. The evolution of bookplate styles makes it possible to attribute a reasonably accurate estimate of date to each bookplate. Please note that the bookplates illustrated above are resized to fit the page conveniently and are not shown to scale.

Text: © 2003-2022 The Bookplate Society All Rights Reserved   Modern illustrations: © the artists