Monday, 10 September 2012

Elephant No. 344: Bookplate

I've always been a bookish sort of girl, happiest with my nose stuck in some large tome. Even as children, my siblings and I couldn't bear to be without reading material at any time, and actually fought over who was reading the cereal box at the breakfast table. This is why we all know the full names of chemical acronyms such as BHT—butylated hydroxytoluene, if you're interested, and I didn't have to look that up.

At one point, when I had a lot more time on my hands, I actually made individual bookplates for my favourite books. The designs were based either on the book's subject matter, or on one of its illustrations. It astonishes me now that I ever even thought of doing such a thing.  

Because I have such a large personal library, only a fraction of my books have bookplates of any kind. But I do think they're lovely little works of art. So today I thought I might try making an elephant bookplate.

Bookplates are sometimes known as "ex libris", meaning "from the books of" in Latin. They are generally small decorative slips of paper pasted into a book to indicate ownership. Bookplates with simple typography are called "booklabels" to distinguish them from the versions with art.

Ownership marks on books and documents may date back to ancient Egypt and the reign of Amenophis III (1391–1353 B.C.), but formal inscriptions in books didn't become common until the Middle Ages in Europe. This coincided with the advent of early library practices, involving the use of shelfmarks, call numbers, and so forth.

One of the earliest known bookplates, A.D. 1480.
This was pasted into books presented by Brother Hildebrand
Brandenburg to a monastery in Buxheim, Germany.

The earliest known printed bookplates were produced in Germany during the late fifteenth century. Although consisting of black ink on white paper, many of these early woodcut bookplates were hand-coloured afterwards, mimicking the look of similar designs in medieval manuscripts. Within a few decades, bookplates were being widely used across Europe, and by the late seventeenth century they had even made their way to North America.

Over the centuries, the designs of bookplates reflected prevailing tastes—oddly enough—in furniture and architecture. Perhaps because a bookplate usually has a frame and often a coat of arms, the bookplate itself often looked something like the panel of a door, cupboard or library wall. Scallop shells, carved greenery, repeating patterns and heraldic animals were all common motifs in bookplates during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reflecting the artistic sensibilities of their times.

Another popular design of the time was the portrait-plate featuring, as the name suggests, an engraved portrait of the book's owner or author. Similarly common designs were the library interior and book-piles, both of which looked exactly as their names suggest. In bookplates such as this, fancy borders and family crests were largely secondary.

Portrait-plate depicting Samuel Pepys.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, bookplates had become quite plain again, often featuring a family shield of arms, a motto and a scroll. This pared-down look was to last throughout most of the century, and it wasn't until the early twentieth century that artistic bookplates enjoyed a resurgence. Family crests fell out of favour at this point, and were replaced by more fanciful and allegorical subject matter.

Today, bookplates have become highly collectible, and are often of greater value than the book into which they've been pasted. Although the study and collection of bookplates dates back no more than 150 years, some immense collections have been amassed over the past century. In 1901–1903, for example, the British Museum in London published a catalogue of the 35,000 bookplates collected by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks. Even more astonishing, the collection of Irene Dwen Andrews Pace—currently housed at Yale University—numbers some 250,000 items.

Bookplate from the library of Edgar
Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan.

Like stamp collectors, some bookplate collectors focus on specific subject matter—scientific, legal, portraits—while others focus on a specific country, period or style. Others collect the work of individual engravers and artists, proof plates, and signed plates. Today there are more than fifty national societies of ex-libris/bookplate collectors worldwide, as well as the worldwide International Federation of Ex-Libris Societies, which organizes a worldwide conference every two years.

For today's elephant, I decided to draw on plain paper with black ink, then hand-colour it if I had time.

I started by drawing a rectangle measuring 7.5 by 10 cm (3 x 4 inches), which is about the size of most bookplates I've seen.

I wasn't sure at first how to fit an elephant into the idea of a bookplate, so I started by drawing an elephant. Luckily, the rest of the design more or less filled itself in. Once I'd drawn the elephant and book, I surrounded it with greenery. Because I had slightly miscalculated the centring of the elephant, I added an extra sprig of greenery on one side.

I went over the sketch with a regular rollerball pen next. The pen wasn't necessarily waterproof; but it was the finest point I had, so I used it instead of the slightly heavier permanent pigment liners I have.

Because I wanted to hand-colour this with watercolours, I heat-set the ink with a hairdryer. Just to be sure it wouldn't run, I drew a few scribbles off to the side and heat-set those as well. When I ran a wet brush over the scribbles and they didn't run, I knew it was okay to paint the main design.

After this, I simply painted everything in. I became quite engrossed in the process, so I didn't photograph it along the way. To give you some idea of the order in which I painted everything, however: I painted the greenery and flowers first, then the book, then the grey of the elephant, then the blue wash in the background, then the pink in the elephant's ears.

It didn't take me long to draw this, but it did take about an hour to paint. I was actually quite happy with the final result, and may even make a few more at some point to put in my favourite elephant-related books.

Elephant Lore of the Day
My friend Jenny reminded me today that poachers don't just kill elephants. They often kill the rangers who protect elephants as well. 

Within the past year alone, five Kenyan wildlife rangers have been killed by poachers, along with a depressing 278 elephants. Even more disturbing, poachers are now turning to "quiet" killing methods, leaving poisoned watermelons out for elephants to eat, and shooting animals and rangers with arrows rather than the noisier guns they once used.

Most sources suggest that growing affluence in China and other Far Eastern countries is fuelling an immense upsurge in the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory, as well as the killing of rhinos for their horns. In some countries, rangers are fighting back by actually sawing off the tusks of elephants and the horns of rhinos to make them less attractive to poachers. This unfortunately changes the animals' behaviour—elephants, for example, use their tusks extensively to unearth minerals in the soil—but at least it keeps them alive.

Sadly, even this is not always enough to keep rangers alive. In April this year, despite the sawn-off horns of local rhinos, a South African ranger and policeman were shot and killed by poachers while on patrol. 

Asian elephant.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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