Ex libris: marks of ownership in rare books exhibition

The bookplate display caseEvery true reader leaves a trace …

Rare books often contain a variety of features which make them important and interesting historical artefacts beyond their texts. Marks of ownership and provenance can reveal not only who once owned a book, their profession and an indication of their interests and character, but also where they acquired the volume, what they paid for it and their opinions about the text. Ownership marks also serve to document the unique history and journey of a book as it passes through the hands of different owners over time.

Features such as annotations can provide the book historian with valuable insights into how a book was perceived by contemporary and later readers. In the case of annotated books in particular, the distinction between 'book' and 'manuscript' becomes blurred, and mass-produced texts become unique objects.

This exhibition invites the viewer to explore the private relationship between readers and their books, and the variety of different ways in which book owners (both famous and long forgotten) from the seventeenth to the twentieth century have indicated ownership of their books through the use of bookplates, decorated bindings, inscriptions and annotations.

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service from 5 April until 1 July 2016, and then at the University Library, Whiteknights campus, from 5 July until 30 September 2016.

Detail of ownership inscriptionList of exhibits

Ownership and presentation inscriptions

The most common mark of ownership to be found in books is a handwritten inscription of the owner’s name, usually on the title page or flyleaves of the book.

Book owners would often add a favourite motto or their profession or college alongside their name, perhaps adding the price they paid or the source of the book. Although most English owners used the vernacular for their inscriptions, Latin was also used until about the middle of the eighteenth century, and names are often Latinised. Book owners with large libraries often marked their books with shelf marks to indicate their place in their library sequence.

A presentation inscription by the author, although not inscribed by the book owner themselves, can also serve as a mark of ownership. Such inscriptions can provide information about the book owner and the person who gave them the book, and perhaps also an insight into their relationship and their intellectual tastes.

  • Prouinciale seu cōstitutiones Angliae: ... [Antwerpie] : [Diligentia Christophori Endouien [i.e. Ruremond] … , [1525]. STENTON LIBRARY--FA/08
    The Latin inscription in this book translates as Gilbert Dethick read this book, 1602, December, followed by the price of 7s 10d that he paid for it in that year [see image of detail of inscription above]. At the front of the book, a letter from John Brewster (1753-1842) to Lord Bridgewater, dated 10 November 1812, has been tipped-in, in which Brewster wrongly identifies the signature as that of Sir Gilbert Dethick (1519-1584). It is likely that the owner of this book was Sir Gilbert’s Dethick’s grandson of the same name who died in 1639.


  • [Aristotelous technēs rētorikēs biblía tría (romanized form)]. Aristotelis, de rhetorica seu arte dicendi libri tres ... Londini : Typis Eduardi Griffini, M.DC.XIX[1619] HENLEY--SHELF 04/12
    This edition of Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’ bears the seventeenth-century ownership inscription Tho. Juice his booke together with the motto A good tree bringeth forth good fruit


  • The historie of Great Britannie declaring the successe of times and affaires in that iland, from the Romans first entrance, vntill the raigne of Egbert, ... [by John Clapham]. London : Printed by Valentine Simmes, 1606. STENTON LIBRARY--CC/16
    The former owner of this history book records the source of the book alongside her name in her inscription: Sara Allsopp her booke given her by her brother Tho: Wast. A subsequent owner has also added his name: Robert Mellor his book.


  • Thoughts on animalcules ; or, A glimpse of the invisible world revealed by the microscope, by Gideon Algernon Mantell. London : John Murray, 1846. RESERVE--593-MAN
    This copy of Mantell’s scientific work was presented and inscribed by him to Mary Shelley, the author of the gothic masterpiece ‘Frankenstein’. Mantell and Shelley became acquainted through Mantell’s interest in poetry, including the poetry of Percy Shelley, Mary’s husband who had died tragically in 1822. The book was sent on 4 January 1847 as a New Year present. The most likely reason for Mantell’s gift was that the book has a section from Percy’s ‘Queen Mab’ opposite the preface. 



Today, books are issued in uniform, mass-produced bindings. Before the 1830s however, when automated bookbinding was introduced, it was carried out by trained artisans working individually or in small workshops.

A customer would buy unbound sheets at the bookseller’s, which they would then take to the binder. He would turn the leaves into books ready for use by folding and sewing them and putting them in protective covers. These covers were then usually covered with leather and decorated according to the customer’s budget. Wealthier book owners often had their initials or coats of arms stamped onto the leather, or uniformly bound to match other volumes in their library.

  • Iustini historiarum ex Trogo Pompeio lib. XLIV. Amsterdam: Elzevier, 1664. RESERVE--878.9-JUS
    Unusually, a wax portrait was inserted into this binding. It is not known who it depicts; it may well be a previous owner, who had come up with this original way of conveying his ownership of the book.
    Binding with wax portrait


  • Marci Tullii Ciceronis opera. Amsterdam : Rudolph and Gerhard Wetstenios, 1724. OVERSTONE 21G/10
    From the sixteenth century onwards, colleges and schools had books specially bound to be given to successful pupils. This is an example of a so-called prize binding. It originates from the Dutch town of Zwolle. The arms and name of the town have been stamped onto the front and back covers in gilt.


  • The circle of commerce, [by Edward Misselden]. London : John Dawson, 1623. OVERSTONE 11D/22
    London-born Edward Gwynn (d.1649) was a lawyer. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1610, and called to the Bar in 1631. Gwynn routinely had his name stamped on the cover of his books so items from his library can easily be identified. His collection was dispersed in the late seventeenth century. Other books that once belonged to Gwynn can now be found in Middle Temple Library and St John’s College. Cambridge.


  • Francesco Redi. Bacco in Toscana. Florence: Piero Matini, 1685. OVERSTONE 19H/20
    The covers of this book are decorated with the armorial stamp of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764). She was a member of the French court and was the official chief mistress of King Louis XV. A major champion of the arts, she amassed a significant library of over 3,500 volumes.



In the early modern age, readers were encouraged to annotate, underline, and mark their books. These annotations can provide a fascinating testimony of the interaction between a book and a previous reader.

Marginal notes often demonstrate an intense engagement with the text. For more copious note-taking, owners sometimes had their volumes interleaved with blank pages on which they could write their comments. However, previous owners have not always added to their books; books in which readers have tried to delete part of the text, by crossing out words they find offensive and unsuitable, are not uncommon.

Readers’ annotations are not always related to the content of the book: owners have also used blank pages for sums, pen trials, and various notes. In this way, the flyleaves of a book often give us a glimpse into the daily life of the people who owned it centuries ago.

  • Anthologia diaphoron epigrammaton. Venice : Pietro & Gioan Maria Nicolinos, 1550. RESERVE--881.08-ANT
    This sixteenth-century anthology of Greek epigrams has been annotated by a previous Italian owner with numerous tiny inscriptions, underlinings, drawings and decorations that relate to the text. On one page, the owner has drawn a hedgehog dangling from a string and a bunch of grapes
    Detail of marginalia from book of Greek epigrams.


  • The workes of Benjamin Johnson. London : Richard Bishop, 1640. RESERVE FOLIO--822.34
    In this example of reader censorship, a previous owner has crossed out all oaths and references to faith in several plays. The words that are blacked out in this fragment are, in this order, faith, ‘fore heaven, and a pox on’t.
    Reader censorship in the works of Ben Jonson


  • Thomas Barlow. Exercitationes aliquot metaphysicæ de Deo. London : Richard Bishop, 1640. RESERVE 110 BAR
    This book is a set of six metaphysical exercises, designed for university use. A previous owner has had several additional blank pages added to the book, and filled them with copious notes in shorthand on metaphysical problems.
    Annotations in Exercitationes aliquot metaphysic�



The use of bookplates as marks of ownership dates back to the last quarter of the fifteenth century. A bookplate, or ex libris (meaning ‘from the books of’), is a small print or decorative label, usually produced as an engraving, for pasting inside the cover of a book to express ownership.

Bookplates typically bear a name, motto, coat-of-arms or any motif that relates to the owner of the book. Images of library interiors or piles of books are particular popular in bookplate designs. From the nineteenth century onwards, bookplate designs became more pictorial, often incorporating motifs relating to the interests or profession of the owner, or using an image which is a visual pun on the owner’s name.

  • A specimen of the several sorts of letter given to the University by Dr. John Fell, Oxford, 1693 : the first English type specimen book, reproduced in collotype facsimile from the most perfect copy known … London : James Tregaskis & Son, 1928. PRINTING COLLECTION--655.24-SPE
    The bookplate of the master printer William Maxwell (1873-1957) was designed by the artist and wood engraver John Farleigh (1900–1965) in 1933. Maxwell printed works by Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw during his career, and collaborated with Farleigh in the production of illustrated books.


  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her scarcer books : a bio-bibliographical note, by H. Buxton Forman. London : Privately printed, 1896. RESERVE-- 821.82-FOR
    This book bears the Art Nouveau-style bookplate of the clergyman Rev. Christie Chetwynd Atkinson (d. 1911) which is signed by an unidentified artist, ‘M.C. Fisher 1902’.
    Bookplate for Christie Chetwynd Atkinson


  • Hymn to Proserpine, by Algernon Charles Swinburne ; engravings by John Buckland-Wright. London : Golden Cockerel Press, 1944. RESERVE--821.86
    This book contains the bookplate of Norman H. Partridge, printed in two colours. Unfortunately nothing is known about this book owner or the artist who designed this unsigned bookplate.


  • Jacobi Christiani Schaeffer, ... Epistola ad Regio-Borussicam societatem litterariam duisburgensem, de studii ichthyologici faciliori ac tutiori methodo … Ratisbonae : impensis Montagii, 1760. COLE--362
    This book bears the Art Nouveau-style armorial bookplate of the American zoologist Charles Atwood Kofoid (1865-1947) by the bookplate designer Beulah Mitchell Clute (1873-1958). Kofoid made important contributions to the study of marine biology, and the bookplate includes references to marine protozoans in its design, and also features the Kofoid Bucket, a device used in the collection of planktonic samples which Kofoid developed. 


  • Experiments in agriculture made under the direction of the Right Honourable and Honourable Dublin Society, in the year 1770 ... by John Wynn Baker. Dublin : Printed by S. Powell and Son, for the author, and sold by G. Faulkner ..., 1771.RESERVE--630.62415-BAK   
    The exquisitely detailed bookplate of the businessman and department store owner, Ernest Ridley Debenham (1865-1952) features a library interior. The bookplate is signed ‘W.P.B. 1910’ but was actually designed by the artist Robert Osmond (1874-1959).


  • Alexander Read. A manuall of the anatomy of the body of man. London : I.L. for Francis Constable and Edwin Bush, 1634. COLE 307
    These two facing armorial bookplates represent two generations of the Verney family: on the left is the bookplate of John Peyto Verney (1738–1816), the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke. The bookplate of his grandson Robert John Verney (1809–1862), the 17th Baron Willoughby de Broke, is on the opposite page.


  • Marmaduke Multiply's merry method of making minor mathematicians; or, the multiplication table, illustrated by sixty-nine appropriate engravings. London : Printed for J. Harris and Son, [not before 1818]. CHILDREN'S COLLECTION--511-MAR
    The charming bookplate of Marjorie Moon, a collector of early children’s books, was designed by the eminent illustrator and wood engraver John Lawrence (b. 1933). This book also bears the ownership signature of another previous owner, Baptista J.W. Woodhouse(?) 


  • Clothes : an essay upon the nature and significance of the natural and artificial integuments worn by men and women, by Eric Gill … London : Jonathan Cape, 1931. RESERVE--391-GIL
    This copy of Eric Gill’s ‘Clothes’ contains a wood-engraved bookplate by Gill for Austen St. Barbe Harrison (1892-1976) who was the architect of Nuffield College at Oxford. He also designed several buildings in Jerusalem (note the inscription: Austen St. B. Harrison, Jerusalem, 1932). The book also contains the bookplate for David Potter, designed by the artist and wood engraver, Reynolds Stone. 


  • William Lawrence. Lectures on physiology, zoology, and the natural history of man. London: J. Callow, 1819. COLE 271
    This is the bookplate of the chemist Algernon Freire-Marreco (1835-1882). It depicts Pierrot, the ‘sad clown’ theatre character, being hanged by the devil. The caption in French and Latin can be translated as If this book had been returned, Pierrot would not have been hanged. This verse was often written by French school boys in their books, usually accompanied by a drawing of a man hanging on a gibbet. 


  • [Homerou Ilias] = Homeri Ilias. Venetiis : [in officina Lucaeantonii Iuntae], 1537. RESERVE--883.1
    This bookplate is an early woodcut designed by the leading Arts and Crafts architect and designer, Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) for himself. It is a good example of a bookplate design which represents a pun on the bookowner’s name, in this case incorporating the images of an ash tree and a bee into the design.


  • Select plays, by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher ; [with an introduction by G.P. Baker]. London : Dent, 1911. FINZI BOOK ROOM--SHELF 01H/10
    This bookplate was designed for the English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) by the artist and wood engraver Reynolds Stone (1909-1979). It depicts the small twelfth-century church of St James opposite Finzi’s home at Church Farm, Ashmansworth, near Newbury in Berkshire. The elegant Art Nouveau-style endpapers of this book from the Everyman’s Library series were designed by the book designer Reginald L. Knowles (1879-1950).


  • Polynesian decorative designs, by Ruth H. Greiner. Honolulu, Hawaii : Published by the Museum, 1923. GIBBINGS COLLECTION--KA1923
    The artist, writer and wood engraver Robert Gibbings (1889-1958) used his personal device or emblem as his bookplate design. The motifs represent some of Gibbings’s interests and occupations. The quill pen refers to his writing, the graving tool represents his wood engraving work, and the upright staff (a Polynesian club) is a reference to his interest in the South Seas.


  • Oeuvres complètes de Cicéron. Paris : Firmin Didot, 1852. RESERVE FOLIO--870.8-COL, VOL. 4
    This large bookplate, dated 1924, is the work of Armand Rassenfosse (1862-1934), a Belgian graphic artist, book illustrator and painter. He made several innovative contributions to the art of engraving, such as the development of a new technique to produce coloured prints.


  • La seconde chronique de Gargantua et de Pantagruel … par M. Paul Lacroix. Paris : Librairie des Bibliophiles, 1872. RESERVE 847.32-LAC
    This book contains the bookplate of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), a critic and biographer, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. It was designed by the painter Dora Carrington (1893–1932), who was a close friend. A number of Strachey’s books are held in the University’s rare book collections. The second bookplate belongs to one A.C. Robinson. It was designed by J. G. Withycombe in 1916, and features a quotation from Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Parlement of Foules’.


  • The three impostors: or, The transmutations, by Arthur Machen. Boston : Roberts Bros. ; London : John Lane, 1895. PRINTING COLLECTION--823.912-MAC  
    This bookplate for the writer Henry Eastman Lower (1872-1929) is signed with a monogram, but the artist has not yet been identified. The design features a motto in Latin Nulla vestigia retrorsum which means ‘No retreat' or 'We never go backwards’. 


  • Brian North Lee. British bookplates : a pictorial history. (Newton Abbot : David and Charles, 1979).

Available for reference use at the Special Collections Service: MARK LONGMAN LIBRARY--769.50942-LEE or for loan from the 2nd floor at the University Library: FOLIO--097-LEE

  • David Pearson. Provenance research in book history : a handbook. (London : British Library, 1994).

Available for reference use at the Special Collections Service: 002.0942-PEA

  • David Pearson. Books as history : the importance of books beyond their texts. (London : British Library ; New Castle, Del : Oak Knoll Press, 2008).

Available for reference use at the Special Collections Service: 002.09-PEA

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