Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Bookplates by Frank Brangwyn

Small wonders from a master illustrator
Bookplates are largely a thing of the past but were once very popular among the literate and well-to-do who took pride in their personal libraries. A bookplate is a printed label that book owners would affix inside the front cover of all the volumes they owned. Since each bookplate had a unique design, often commissioned by a professional illustrator, the bookplate served essentially the same function as a cattle brand. Bookplate designs often incorporate the Latin phrase “ex libris” (from the library of) and the name of the book’s owner. Centuries ago bookplates were often designed with the armorial bearings of the books’ owner, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrators and printmakers turned the bookplate into an unbounded medium of artistic expression. The bookplate design served as a symbol—sort of a logo—of the owner, ideally representing his or her values and personality.

No doubt any book lover would have been honored to have a bookplate designed by Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956). This master painter and printmaker was renowned for his book illustrations and mural paintings, which he executed in a bold, romantic, and decorative style falling somewhere between William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. The book simply entitled Bookplates, published in 1920, reproduces 69 of Brangwyn’s bookplates. The volume opens with nine pages of text that comment briefly Brangwyn’s work and the history of the bookplate. The remainder of the book is filled with Brangwyn’s beautiful artwork, with one bookplate featured per page. At least half of the designs incorporate color and are reproduced in color. A full-color digital copy of this book can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust or the Internet Archive.

The bookplates pictured in this book appear to be about half pen and ink drawings and half wood engravings, plus a few etchings. The subject matter depicted covers a wide variety of figures, animals, trees, architecture, and ships. A family of birds sits in a nest atop a gargoyle overlooking a Spanish galleon sailing into the sunset. A monk shepherds a boar through a copse of trees. A laborer gazes out at a cityscape of factory chimneys spewing clouds of smoke. Two naked nymphs play flutes in a flowery wood. Brangwyn’s illustrations have a more aggressive, gestural quality than the more finicky line work of America’s great illustrator Rockwell Kent (also a designer of bookplates). While Kent’s work looks as if it were drawn with a fine calligrapher’s nib, Brangwyn’s art more overtly displays the feverish marks of brush and chisel.

I first became aware of Frank Brangwyn from his murals in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol and have since come to admire his work as an illustrator and printmaker. Those who appreciate classic book illustration of the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries will find much to enjoy in this showcase of Brangwyn’s estimable talent. Any artist who enjoys working in pen and ink, woodcut, or linocut will find this book a source of interesting ideas for small prints and drawings. It’s a shame bookplates are no longer commonplace, but this portfolio of Brangwyn’s work offers a nice nostalgic look back at the height of the art form.

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