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Australian and United States Bookplate Societies, Collectors and Artists: a Century-Long Friendship

American Bookplate Society, Kansas City: No sooner had the Ex Libris Society been formed in London in 1891, than it attracted much interest from across the Atlantic, and within three years over 50 Americans had joined its ranks. In 1896, the Washington [DC] Ex-Libris Society was formed, renamed the American Bookplate Society in 1897 and then folded. In 1913, another American Bookplate Society came into existence through the driving force of Alfred Fowler of Kansas City, Missouri, although its foundation members were largely based in New York City. In 1915, the American Bookplate Society issued its first Year Book, which reprinted the Society’s constitution, the editorial referring to the ‘Society’s program for furthering the art of the modern bookplate.’ By this time, the Society had 115 members, and of eight foreign members two were Australians—Percy Neville Barnett, c/o Bank of New South Wales, Wollongong, and Mrs Ellen Middleton, of Sydney, both of whom had joined in 1913.

Whereas in the period leading up to the First World War, Australian collectors had looked to England, the Studio and the Ex Libris Society, in the 1920s the Australian movement was increasingly influenced by activities in the United States. By 1925, five Australians (P.N. Barnett, Robert Cutting, Mrs Ethelbert Falkiner, Blanche Milligan and J.L. Mullins) were included in the exchange list for the American Bookplate Society. In the same year, the Tenth Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Bookplates attracted a large Australian contingent.

P. Neville Barnett (16 designs), L. Roy Davies (3), H.R. Gallop (3) and Phillip Litchfield (1). It was reported in the American Bookplate Society's Bookplate Annual for 1925 as follows:

The Australian group is particularly interesting and obtained one Certificate of Merit [Davies] and two Certificates of Honorable Mention [Barnett]. Most of the Australian designs are woodcuts [correctly, wood engravings]. The fine group representing Australia this year is the definite result of a revival of interest in the Art of the Bookplate in Australia and of its furtherance there by the Australian Ex-Libris Society.


Bookplate Association International, Los Angeles

By 1927, the American Bookplate Society had faded and its role was taken up by two societies which had recently formed on either side of the continent—the Los Angeles-based Bookplate Association International (1925-c. 1935), the main work of which was to organise annual international competitions; and the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers (1922- ).

Australians were represented in the Bookplate Association International's annual competition from 1927 onwards, and gained some success. In the 1930 competition ‘Adrian Feint … put the Society well on the map in other lands by walking off with first award in the International Book Plate Exhibition of Los Angeles and in the following year Eric Thake received an award of merit for a woodcut design. Feint gained international recognition for his designs, and this accelerated after he had taken the first prize for the wood engraved Raoul Lempriere plate in the 1930 competition. As a result he was invited to exhibit a one-man show ‘The book plates of Adrian Feint’ held at the Division of Fine Arts, Library of Congress, Washington, DC from 15 August to 14 September 1930. Shortly after, Ruth Thomson Saunders, the association’s American vice-president, inscribed a copy of her Bookplates by Ruth Thomson Saunders (Saunders Press, Claremont, CA, 1930) ‘to the Australian Ex Libris Society from the Bookplate Association International, October 1930 Los Angeles California’.

Victorian designer P. Roach Pierson was appointed a vice-president in 1933 whilst Saunders in her The book of artists' own bookplates (1933) lists Garnet Agnew, Ella Dwyer, Feint, J.B. Godson, Litchfield, David J. Payne, Thake and E.S. Watson as Australian entrants in the recent competition. Saunders was in touch with Sydney artist Ella Dwyer; the latter's papers held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, contain a copy of The book of artists’ own bookplates inscribed to Dwyer by Saunders, with Dwyer’s own bookplate, referred to in the text, laid in at the front.


American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers

In 1929 a relationship sprang up between the Australian Ex Libris Society and the ASBC&D, probably as a result of approaches by P. Neville Barnett the energetic secretary of the Australian society. That year, Carlyle Baer, the secretary and driving force of the ASBC&D, joined the Australian one. Barnett’s paper ‘The bookplate in Australia, its inspiration and artistic development’ was published in the ASBC&D  Year Book , and the Australian society resolved to pursue ‘an exchange of literature and cooperation between the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers and the Society.' Over the following 20 years, articles of Australian interest appeared in six further issues of the Year Book: ‘Adrian Feint’s book-plates’ by John Lane Mullins, 1930; ‘Lino-cut bookplates’ by G.D. Perrottet and ‘Bookplates of G.D. Perrottet’ by Camden Morrisby, 1932; ‘Adrian Feint’ by Sydney Ure Smith, 1938; ‘An Austral engraver, Gayfield Shaw and his bookplates’ by R.H. Croll and ‘Bookplate work of Gayfield Shaw’ by F.C. Blank, 1939; ‘Etched plates of Ella Dwyer’ by G.D. Perrottet and ‘George D. Perrottet, designer and craftsman’ by Albert Collins, 1942; and ‘P. Neville Barnett, a super bookman’ by Alan P. Rigby, 1949/1950.

The ASDC&D had taken out membership of its Australian counterpart in 1932 and apart from the benefits of an international collegiality, it was hoped that such articles would result in Australian artists receiving commissions from United States collectors. A short lived Sydney-based group, the New South Wales Bookplate Club (1932-35) also made contact with the ASBC&D to publicise its major event, the International Bookplate Competition which was announced with a closing date of 31 January 1933. The competition was advertised internationally, with a notice appearing in the July 1932 Bulletin of the of the American Society of Bookplate Collectors and Designers, with the result that11 entries were received from five United States designers, F.C. Blank, Thomas E. French, Ruth Saunders, M.E. Webb and Leota Woy.


Australian societies and collectors

In the inter-War period United States collectors joined Australian societies and vice versa, leading to many strong friendships across the Pacific. Already a veteran Sydney collector of two decades standing, Blanche Milligan joined the American Bookplate Society, subscribing to the Bookplate Annual and providing Alfred Fowler with news of the formation of the Australian Ex Libris Society for the September 1923 issue of Bookplate Chronicle. By 1930 the Australian Ex Libris Society had five United States members, and nine by 1934.

When Australians joined the ASBC&D, they received an avalanche of correspondence seeking exchanges. Blanche Milligan's papers (held by the author) include many requests for exchanges from American collectors and a run of letters from Carlyle Baer spanning the years 1930 to 1933. Sydney collector John Gibson received letters from perhaps a dozen US collectors, their message typified by this note dated October 1934 from Helen Parsons Malcolm (Pompano, FL):

My dear Fellow-Member of the A.S.B.C.&D.: I am happy to find your name in the exchange list of our Bookplate Society and to enclose, herewith, copies of my two bookplates, with the request that you will favour me by exchanging.

Although the Australian societies faded out during the years of World War II, contacts made before the War led were resumed on the return of peace. This feeling of good will at this time between Australian and American collectors is perhaps exemplified by a March 1946 letter from Robert F. Metzdorf of the University of Rochester Library to R.H. Croll in Melbourne:

Thank you very much for the bookplates which you sent me; am always particularly glad to receive Australian plates, especially those of Perrottet, who is one of my favourite designers.

Please let me hear from you again. With all our boys coming home (and some of your girls), we feel that we have very strong bonds with "down under."

Now that the New Australian Bookplate Society and the ASBC&D are in regular contact and exchanging their respective publications, we look forward to continuing the excellent relationship between lovers of bookplates in our two countries.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan