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  • What is the First English Bookplate?
  • David Pearson (bio)

It is well-documented, and regularly noted in standard reference sources, that the first English bookplate is a gift label which was used in a group of books given to Cambridge University by Sir Nicholas Bacon in 1574.1 This large (170 × 120 mm) label, with a woodcut coat of arms above a printed legend describing and dating the donation, survives today in eleven copies; all but one remain in situ in books in Cambridge, and one is a victim of bookplate collectors, now in the Viner Collection of bookplates in the British Museum.2 The arms block was originally used in the second edition of Legh's Accedens of armory (1568) and in the labels in the books, which were inserted after their receipt by the Library, they were hand-coloured. The process mirrors that followed in Germany a century earlier, when the world's first bookplate (again, by general agreement among bookplate historians) was a similarly hand-coloured armorial woodcut label pasted into books given to the Charterhouse of Buxheim by Hildebrand Brandenburg around 1480.3

In 2010 John Blatchly drew attention to a hand-drawn, coloured and gilded depiction of Cardinal Wolsey's coat of arms, pasted into a book now in the British Library, asking whether this might instead be the first British bookplate.4 It does indeed have many of the properties normally associated with bookplates; although it does not employ any printing technique, it is on paper and is found on the front pastedown of the book (Tomus primus quatuor concilium generalium, fol, Paris, 1524, British Library C.27.l.8; the Tomus secundus accompanies it, but has no label/bookplate). Its dimensions are c. 230 × 175 mm, so quite large for a bookplate, but even larger [End Page 527] contemporary German bookplates are known.5 The book has a contemporary French blind-tooled roll binding, but unfortunately has been rebacked and heavily repaired, with new endleaves on which the Wolsey arms are now pasted, and we cannot be sure whether it was originally in that position (although it seems likely).6 The books may have been a gift to Wolsey, with the painted arms inserted by the donor, rather than having been put in by him as an ownership marking, but either way there is clearly a plausible case to be made for describing this as a kind of bookplate. It is the only known example.

What has hitherto been less well documented is a set of sixteenth-century hand-painted paper labels, which clearly were pasted in as bookplates, surviving among the library of Bury St Edmunds Grammar School, which has since 1970 been deposited in Cambridge University Library.7 There are four of them, within a group of sixteen surviving books which belonged to Thomas Andrews (d. 1585), themselves about a quarter of a donation of a little under sixty volumes given to the School by Andrews in 1565.8 Although each bookplate is individually hand-drawn and coloured, the design is uniform—the arms of Andrews, without any wording, and the heraldic tinctures correctly followed. An example, which is representative of all four, is shown in Fig. I. The arms conform closely to the blazon which was recorded in a College of Arms manuscript of c. 1510 for Thomas Andrews of Bury St Edmunds (probably his father), argent on a bend cotised sable between two lions gules three mullets argent; the only discrepancy is that the bend, on the bookplates, is engrailed as well as cotised.9 Burke's later Victorian armory records very similar arms for Andrews of Suffolk, and notes the crest (as we see in the bookplate) as a bird, wings expanded azure holding in the beak a laurel branch vert.10 The arms as drawn conform to this, except that the lions are gules not sable; the mantling is drawn in each case using the same azure and argent tincture scheme, with tassels or, [End Page 528] and the helmet is correctly shown as that of an esquire. The surviving examples vary in size between 12 × 10 and 18 × 13 cm

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