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Identifying Bookplates

Given a particular bookplate, there are a number of avenues of research which may yield useful information on the owner. There are biographical and heraldic reference works; bibliographies or lists of bookplates; major collections of bookplates in various institutions; journals devoted to the study of bookplates, or likely to contain articles concerning bookplates; published catalogues of exhibitions of bookplates; and books about bookplates and their history.

Published on 29 April 2010

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By David Pearson


Given a particular bookplate, there are a number of avenues of research which may yield useful information on the owner. There are biographical and heraldic reference works; bibliographies or lists of bookplates; major collections of bookplates in various institutions; journals devoted to the study of bookplates, or likely to contain articles concerning bookplates; published catalogues of exhibitions of bookplates; and books about bookplates and their history.

The identification of bookplates is often not as simple as it may at first appear. Even a plate with a name and a coat of arms may present problems, as research into the history of the family often reveals several members with the same name within the span of a few generations. Hence it is important to be able to assess roughly when the plate was made. The problems may not stop here, as it is common to find that plates remained in use for many years, and possibly for several generations. An original copper or steel plate may be used to produce several different impressions over a long period of time, with the possibility of slight changes being made between printings. It may therefore be useful to examine the major collections, and the secondary literature, to discover what, if anything, is known of the pattern of use of a particular plate.

The biographical and heraldic reference works often provide the best place to begin when seeking to identify a bookplate and learn more about the owner and his collection. The specialised bookplate literature may then be consulted for supporting information, which may or may not be found, depending on the extent to which that particular plate has been studied. The first thing to do, when looking at a bookplate, is to assign a rough date, based on the decorative style. If it incorporates the owner’s name, he or she may be sought through the various biographical sources listed in chapter VIII, using any additional clues which the plate may provide to choose the right place to begin. (If the owner has a degree, for example, he ought to appear in one of the university lists.) With armorial plates, use the heraldic information too: check the arms against Burke’s General armory if the name is given, or against Papworth’s Ordinary if it is not. Fairbairn’s Crests may provide a helpful shortcut through the heraldic maze for bookplates which have a crest or motto. Indications of rank (coronets, helms) should be taken into account. The identification of armorials with no name, or with initials only, must of course rely primarily on the heraldic sources, and fuller details of those just mentioned, and others, will be found in the opening section of chapter VIII.

Several useful articles on heraldic bookplates have been published in The Bookplate Journal; for a good introduction to the subject at a basic level, see:

C.R. Lattimore, ‘Heraldry and bookplates’, The Bookplate Journal 2(2) (1984), pp. 61–74.

Two articles by Peter Allpress have dealt with specific heraldic features:

‘Augmentations of honour on armorial bookplates’, The Bookplate Journal 5(2) (1987), pp. 53–89, and 6(2) (1988), pp. 4–93 [the second section is an alphabetical list of bookplates containing augmentations];

‘Oders of chivalry and decorations depicted on bookplates’, The Bookplate Journal 8(1) (1990), pp. 14–40.

Cipher bookplates, in which the owner’s initials, or possibly all the letters of his name, are entwined together in an elaborate pattern, present particular problems as the letters forming the design may be difficult, if not impossible, to unravel. There is little guidance to be offered here, beyond pointing out that there are a number of seventeenth and eighteenth century pattern books, which were popular for providing monograms for various uses. Reference to these may at least show how the designers’ minds worked, and provide clues for teasing out complicated patterns:

J. Marlow, A book of cyphers or letters reverst, London, 1683 (Wing M 698)

B. Rhodes, A new book of cyphers, London [1696?] (Wing R 1326B)

W. Parsons, A new book of cyphers, London, 1704 (ESTC t116152)

J. Pigot, A complete alphabet of cyphers reversed & inverted, [London, 1705?] (ESTC t125566)

H. Dod, Book of cyphers, London, [1710?] (ESTC t95128)

J. Nutting, A new book of cyphers London, [1720?] (ESTC t87042)

S. Sympson, A new book of cyphers, London, [1726] (ESTC t145073)

A new book of cyphers, London, for Cartington Bowles and Robert Sayer, [1773?] (ESTC t87386)

J. Lockington, A new and complete set of cyphers, [London, 1777] (ESTC t118598)

P. Barraud, A new book of single cyphers, [London, 1782] (ESTC t90329)

Excerpts from David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History. A Handbook. New Castle, DE Oak Knoll Press 1998. Published with the kind permission of Bob Fleck (Oak Knoll Press, Oak Knoll Books). For more information see www.oakknoll.com


More information


Bibliographies and Databases - links on ILAB.org

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