Charles Blackman designed his own bookplate

Are you an avid book collector with a collection of wonderfully unique treasures? Have you ever had second thoughts about loaning a favourite book to a friend, in case you don’t get it back? There is an easy and beautiful way to show that any book is truly yours.

What you need is a bookplate, which is also known as an ex-libris (Latin for ‘from the library’), and is a small decorative label that is inserted into a book to indicate ownership. Bookplates typically bear the owner’s name and a motif, such as a motto, crest or coat-of-arms significant for the owner – like a stylish tattoo for books. Usually this motif is instructive for the artist when creating the design which can vary in detail and complexity. The discovery of a bookplate can be important evidence for the provenance of an item and therefore helpful for the archiving and preservation of collections.

The earliest known bookplates have been found in an Egyptian collection from the reign of Amenophis III (1391-1353 BCE), but the first printed bookplates date from the 15th century in Germany and can be linked with the increase in librarianship and as book collection became more widespread with the invention of the printing press. Bookplates are often of high interest and can be considered of greater value than that of the associated book. They are a fascinating source of artistic, historic and cultural interest.

Bookplates collection at Monash

Monash University Library has an extensive collection of bookplates. A selection of these can be accessed through Monash Collections Online, the home of the Library’s digitised Special Collections.

The collection showcases designs from high profile Australian artists and commissioned by members of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia. Its early members were initially divided about the relevance of collecting this ephemera but went on to increasingly collect and commission bookplates throughout their career.

Represented in the collection are a number of bookplates designed by the brothers Lionel and Norman Lindsay, both prolific Australian artists of the early 20th century.  Lionel, known for his etchings, created more complex and detailed designs than the simple pen and ink illustrations showcased in Norman’s work. Themes found in Norman’s other work can be seen in these designs, including nude women and Australian native animals reminiscent of his illustrations in his Children’s book The Magic Pudding. Lionel and Norman worked together for a series of magazines, including the Sydney Bulletin, of which Norman was a regular editorial and political cartoonist.  A Book Collectors Society member from South Australia, Keith Wingrove, has bookplates by Lionel and Norman Lindsay, as well as a number of other artists.

Another artist regularly featured in the collection is Vane Lindesay, who was not only a cartoonist, illustrator, writer and book designer, but also an Australian cartoon historian. A notable collection item is a Lindesay-designed bookplate  (at left) for Robert C. Littlewood, a collector of Australian art and graphic prints produced between 1895 and 1940, on the occasion of his 40th birthday. This bookplate includes a jester motif, inspired by a famous self-portrait by Lionel Lindsay, with the design itself showing a great understanding of the elements required in a bookplate and executed with warmth and humour. Littlewood used the jester frequently, including as part of his business logo and it therefore had increased significance beyond the initial homage to Lindsay.

Bookplate designed by Lionel Lindsay

Nancy Lambert Johnson, former treasurer for the Book Collectors Society of Australia, also had a design by Vane Lindesay. She commissioned his design for his understanding of and interest in ‘Lindsayana’, an interest that contributed to Johnston’s desire to begin her own bookplate collection. Her love of both books and art was fanned by frequent visits to the galleries, museums and libraries of Cologne, during her time working there in 1939.

The bookplate collection at Monash is a testament to thoughtful design by artists that understood, as well as played with, the elements of the tradition of the bookplate itself. Other known artists represented in the collection are children’s author and environmentalist Irena Sibley, David Frazer, Allan Jordan, Kenneth Jack and J.B Godson. These artists brought the own style, melded with the personality of the owners in order to create something that is not only striking and beautiful, but personal and unique.


About the author: Writer Clare Presser is a staff member within the Digitisation and Research Repository team at Monash University Library.