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This book belongs to: bookplates in the SBT Library

Mareike Doleschal introduces a selection of bookplates belonging to previous owners of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's early printed books.

Mareike Doleschal

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with rare books is exploring their unique features. What I find particularly intriguing is provenance and the different traces previous owners have left inside their former books, such as inscriptions, bookplates [1], shelf marks, armorial stamps, pressed flowers and letters pasted inside the front of books. The purpose of the bookplate is obvious. It is a way of marking ownership, to remind a borrower to return the book.

Bookplates are almost as old as the printing press and came into existence soon thereafter. The earliest bookplate dates from 1470 and was used in Germany, where artists like Dürer and Cranach designed bookplates. Heraldic symbols, shields, coat of arms and armour dominate early bookplates. Personal symbols, mottos and ornamentations such as Rococo scrolls gradually crept into the design. Book owners, who didn’t have the right to bear a coat of arms, would create plates that reflected their personal interests. In the nineteenth century, when books became more numerous, some bookplates were small, unadorned labels, which simply recorded the owner’s name. However, many bookplates, including modern ones, are miniature works of art. They express an owner’s individuality and are a reflection of artistic taste in the decorative arts prevalent at the time.

Robert Spearman bookplate.jpg

The bookplate belonging to Robert Spearman (1703-1761) graces the inside of a book on botany, published in 1548. Robert Spearman was a theologian and writer of physics. He was also an Esquire and belonged to a higher social rank, so it’s no surprise a shield features dominantly on his bookplate. Placed above the shield is a helmet. A lion, holding a spear, stands on the shield, which could be read as a visual representation of the owner’s name. Below the name is the owner’s place of residence, Old Acres, and his title. A shell like border surrounds the shield. The frilling or shell decorations indicate that this plate dates from 1740 to1770 when the Chippendale or Rococo style was fashionable.

According to Spearman’s will his heirs were his five daughters: Dorothy, Mary-Ann, Hannah-Elizabeth, Charlotte and Margaret. I wonder what they made of their father’s bookplate. If they inherited his books, did they create their own plates?

David Garrick bookplate.jpg

The next bookplate I’d like to introduce belongs to the eighteenth century Shakespearean actor and theatre manager David Garrick (1717-1779). The plate graces a volume containing Michael Drayton’s works published in 1753. Garrick adapted Shakespeare’s plays and is also known for organising a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769.

Book collecting was one of Garrick’s passions and he assembled a library of 3000 volumes, including 1,300 old plays. [2] In 1823, when his books were auctioned off, the sale lasted ten days. [3] Garrick is said to have allowed his friends and acquaintance to use his library, which might explain why he included a quote by the French author Gilles Menage (1613-1692) in his bookplate. It translates as: “The first thing you must do, when you have borrowed a book, is to read it so you may return it.”

Perhaps Garrick had some negative experiences with book borrowers, or he was fearful his friends might forget to return his treasures? A bust of Shakespeare sits on top of a shield with David Garrick’s name. The artist, I. Wood, made sure that this bookplate leaves no doubt as to the owner’s interests. Various symbols of the theatre and stage props adorn the cartouche, including a crown, sword, a lyre and theatrical masks. A fool’s staff, Pan’s pipes, a bow and quiver also feature in this pictorial bookplate that combines a portrait, motto and theatrical paraphernalia and is a reflection of the owner’s personality and interests.

Bookplate Frances Mary Richardson Currer.jpg

A book about Worcester cathedral, published 1737, contains a bookplate of Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861), a British heiress and book collector, who inherited a library of 20,000 books, covering a range of subjects including natural science, topography and antiquities. A drawing room at Eshton Hall in North Yorkshire housed her books. The fact she produced two catalogues, in 1820 and 1830, and her significant correspondence with other book collectors, proves that Currer took an active interest in expanding her collection. This contradicts the accusation made by male book collectors at the time who claimed female bibliophiles were merely interested in fashion, style and ornamentation and didn't even bother with cutting the pages of their books.

Even as late as 1930, Holbrook Jackson wrote in his book Anatomy of Bibliomania that "book love is as masculine as growing a beard." [4] Frances's surname might have inspired the pseudonym adopted by Charlotte Brontë but we don't know for sure if Brontë and Frances Currer ever met, although some believe that the Brontës had access to Currer's magnificent library.

Currer never married and rejected marriage proposals throughout her life. According to the laws of heraldry, an unmarried woman wasn’t allowed to include arms, a helmet or crest or use a shield as part of her bookplate. “The arms of a married woman are impaled with her husband’s on a shield.” [5] Although described by some as the “greatest woman book collector” [6], Currer had to obey the rules of heraldry when she commissioned artist Richard Joseph Ablett to design her bookplate.

Her bookplate shows a highly stylised shield in the shape of a diamond lozenge that has a band across the centre and features counter-changed fields decorated with various animals, bordures and an engrailed cross. The animals include lions, sparrows, and three stag heads. The plate belonging to the first major female book collector is influenced by a patriarchal attitude prevalent at the time and is disappointing in its lacks of individuality and personal interests and passions. A portrait of Currer sitting in her library surrounded by books and compiling one of her catalogues would have been a more fitting image for her bookplate.

Reginald Cholmondeley bookplate.jpg

Reginald Cholmondeley’s bookplate dates from the nineteenth century but looks older than it is. The bookplate shows an armorial seal that resembles a medieval wax seal, a popular bookplate design at the time. The circular framing device, which features the owner’s name, includes a shield with two helmets, wheat of sheaf and is surmounted by another helmet. On top of the helmet sits a mythical creature, holding a miniature helmet. The animal, a gryphon, has the head and wings and legs of an eagle, the body of a lion and pointed ears. Below the shield is a scroll with the owner’s motto in Latin: “Cassis tutissima virtus,” which translates as ‘virtue (or power) is the safest helmet’. A less literal translation of the motto is: A virtuous man is safe from danger.[7]

Reginald Cholmondeley (1826-1896), an Esquire, owned Condover Hall, which has been described as the “grandest Elizabethan manor house in Shropshire.”[8] Today Condover Hall is an activity centre for school groups. The book that contains Cholmondeley’s bookplate is among the most valuable and important books that the Trust looks after. It’s a second folio of Shakespeare’s works, published 1632. We don’t know if he annotated the book, but some of the book’s previous owners did. Besides being a bibliophile, bird collector and naturalist Cholmondeley was also a generous person who loved his friends, among them Mark Twain, Helena Faucit and Robert Browning. A note inside the front of the folio informs us he gave the book to his friend the Shakespearean actress Helena Faucit. Like Currer’s bookplate, Cholmondeley’s Ex Libris, doesn’t shed light on the owner’s personal interests but displays a bookplate design that was fashionable during the nineteenth century.

Caleb S Mann bookplate.jpg

Compared to the bookplates discussed so far, the plate belonging to Caleb S. Mann couldn’t be simpler in its design. The first illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1709 and edited by the poet and playwright Nicholas Rowe contains this bookplate. It merely records the owner’s name, which is surrounded by a plain rectangular frame. Its purpose is as functional as its design. I haven’t discovered who Caleb S. Mann was. There are several entries for this name on ancestry; some men with the name are shopkeepers. Unlike Spearman and Cholmondeley, it’s not unlikely that Caleb S. Mann had less wealth, hence the plain bookplate. We will never know.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Bookplate.jpg

This blog wouldn’t be complete without discussing the Trust’s bookplate, which is still used to record donations to the Trust Library.

The artist who created this plate, Charles William Sherborn (1831-1912) was an engraver, whose greatest achievement was to revive the art of creating copper-engraved bookplates. Described as a master of his craft, his bookplate designed for the Trust in 1901 contains a wealth of visual information relating to Shakespeare and his childhood home. The central image is the birth room in the Birthplace, where during the nineteenth century, the guardians of the Trust stored books and artefacts.

The design includes Shakespeare’s coat of arms, which his father bought for £20 and the coat of arms of Stratford, showing three leopards’ heads and a chevron. One of the most intriguing features of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is the visual pun on his name embodied by the spear on the shield and the falcon, which perches on top of the shield and which could be interpreted as shaking the spear it holds. [9] Sherbon uses scrolls as framing devices. They contain textual information: The trustees and guardians of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon (top scroll). Shakespeare’s Birthplace Library (bottom scroll, below the image of the interior.) Right at the bottom of the plate are the words ‘the gift of.’ The purpose of this plate is to mark donations. Only a few years ago I used the Trust’s bookplate to record the gift of several volumes of Shakespeare’s works in Chinese that the former Chinese Premier presented to us during his visit to the Birthplace. It is a fitting bookplate for the Trust Library; rich in history and visual information, that I hope readers enjoy looking at when they discover it inside one of our books.


[1] Bookplates are also called Ex Libris, which is Latin, meaning 'the book of.'
[2] [accessed 18th January 2021]
[3] [accessed 18th January 2021]
[4] Jackson, Holbrook quoted in:
[5] C. M.: Ex-libris: Some observations, historical, biographical and critical, on book-plates in general and the Detroit Museum of Art exhibition of 1916 in particular, page 10
[6] de Riccci, Seymour: Article in The Times, 1906
[7] [accessed 18th January 2021]
[8] [accessed 19th January 2021]
[9] [accessed 18th January 2021]

Bibliography [accessed 18th January 2021]
Bowdoin, W. G.: Some notes on book-plates and on collecting them. In: The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Volume 4, Number 4, October 1917, pp. 211-220
Chanter, Rachel: The book huntress: Women Bibliophiles. [accessed 18th January 2021] [accessed 18th January 2021]
C. M.: Ex-libris: Some observations, historical, biographical and critical, on book-plates in general and the Detroit Museum of Art exhibition of 1916 in particular. In: Bulletin of the Detroit Museum of Art, Volume 10, Number 7, March 1916, pp. 8-12 [accessed 18th January 2021] [accessed 18th January 2021] [accessed 19th January 2021]
McNally, Peter F.: Review. In: The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Volume 61, No. 3, July 1991, pp. 363-365 [accessed 18th January 2021]
Quintana, José Miguel: The bookplate. In: Artes de México, Number 131, Libros Mexicanos, 1970, pp. 104-108 [accessed 18th January 2021]
The Digital Ex-libris Museum: [accessed 18th January 2021] [accessed 18th January 2021] [accessed 18th January 2021]

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