Although bookplates have been used to mark the ownership of books for several hundred years, the period between 1890 and 1920 marked a highpoint in the quality of their design and imaginativeness. Although many designs were still armorial, telling the story of ancestors and families merging using complex symbols and ciphers on a coat of arms, other book owners commissioned designs that told a story in a small, finely detailed picture. These pictorial designs captured some element of their owner's life, sometimes with a flight of fancy. An example is the bookplate of Althelstan Riley, which shows his manor house in Jersey, the mallard duck on his pond that he was required to tithe to his Monarch (Jersey is a Crown Dependency) and a knight on a horse holding a shield decorated with the arms of Riley and his wife. These designs were engraved by hand, usually on copper, by a very skilled craftsmen (they were mostly male) and then the design was printed in an intaglio process leaving a plate mark on high quality paper. The bookpate was then often trimmed to within the plate mark and glued by its owner onto the front pastedown of a book to mark it as ex libris: from their personal library. At the turn of the 20th century many collectors of books and bookplate collectors swapped their bookplates with other people, and some were signed in the plate by the designer. But in this - who designed and even signed bookplates with the initials WPB - lies a controversy.
The company J. & E. Bumpus of Oxford Street in London, Booksellers to Queen Victoria, was a notable publisher of personal bookplates. Many of their designs were engraved at the lower margin with the initials of William Phillips Barrett (1861-1938), a New Zealander by birth, who was the Manager of Bumpus's shop. Many designs of bookplates dated up to and including 1908 were signed 'INV W.P.B.', meaning invenit in Latin or 'invented', which was not the case. By adding his initials to some 600 bookplates, he claimed the design when, in fact, most of them were designed by at least five skilled engravers: John Augustus Charles Harrison (1872-1954), Robert Osmond (1874-1959), Charles Brooke Bird (1856-1916), John Edward Syson (1856-1929?) and George Ernest Vize (1865-1943?). Barrett's job was to persuade clients to order a bookplate to be engraved and then printed by Bumpus, so he was a salesman. He may have asked the clients what they wanted, but the design of the plate and its execution was usually done by the engraver. This dubious practice led Harrison to leave the firm in about 1908 because he resented the fact that Barrett claimed his designs (Jones, 1978). Harrison's designs for later bookplates were often initialled JACH, sometimes within the design or beneath it, and sometime signed in pencil beneath, such as the example here. Harrison went on to engrave the British sea-horse stamps, issued in 1913, and stamps for the Wembley Exhibition in 1924.
Design by Robert Osmond to show his skills as an engraver (click to enlarge)
The engraver Robert Osmond (1874-1959) was believed to have been recruited by Bumpus in about 1905 and took over as the main engraver when Harrison left in 1908, when the practice of adding the letters 'INV' was dropped, but the intials W.P.B. were in most cases retained. There are some bookplates listed in Horace Jones' catalogue (1978)* which do not use Barrett's initials. Osmond's engraving called 'The Challenge' (see above, left) was done explicitly to show his skills as an engraver but, even then, the proof illustrated above has the initials W.P.B. below the design and a proof signed by Barrett in pencil is known. Osmond is estimated to have been responsible for nearly a half of all bookplates engraved 'W.P.B', presumably having accepted his anonymity. I have one example of a plate signed by Osmond, the bookplate for John Sankey, so he took credit for some plates indirectly. Brian North Lee's catalogue of Bookplates by Robert Osmond (The Bookplate Society, 1998) lists 507 designs.
Barrett left the firm of Bumpus in 1928 and the practice of adding his initials to plates ended. A pictorial bookplate for Nicholas Frederick Brady in the collection at the University of Delaware is initialled to the right 'J.&E.B.' and to the left 'R.O. 1929'. Robert Osmond was finally given credit for his designs.
* Horace E. Jones (1978). Bookplates signed 'W.P.B' 1896-1928. Berkhampstead: James Wilson and the Bookplate Society.
This book lists 548 bookplates. A supplement of 38 additional bookplates was issued in 1997, making a total of at least 586.
A bookplate on paper that shows the plate mark and has wide margins was probably printed for collectors or perhaps as a trial proof; a bookplate that has been trimmed within the plate mark was probably for use in a book and may have been removed from one, though they were also swapped. I have given the dimensions of the sheet of paper, the dimensions of the plate mark (if there is one still) and the approximate dimensions of the image, at the widest points. The images are not shown to scale, so that the detail of the smallest and the largest can be seen.