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Colonial bookplates in a Country-House Library.

The enthusiasm for bookplates which has framed the character of this issue of History has a strong artistic flavour and a strong twentieth-century emphasis. The art of the bookplate in the last hundred years is a very proper object of study. But colonial Australians also chose labels by which to establish ownership and impress personality on the books they owned. When P. Neville Barnett published his pamphlet The Bookplate in Australia in 1930, he gave short shrift to colonial bookplates:
 In contemplating them, one will find little in the design or
 the engraving to please the eye and satisfy the aesthetic sense.
 Their virtue lies in their rarity and in their association with
 the cradle days of this country's history. (p.11)

A historian may be forgiven for emphasising the evidential value of these nineteenth-century bookplates. Most are simple, but elegant, engraved cards bearing the name of the owner; some, from the 1830s onwards, have the addition of heraldic or pseudo-heraldic blazons. All assert a degree of sophistication and pride and show something of the mental baggage of the book-owning classes in the colonies. Since historical interest in the book-trade and the private library in nineteenth-century Australia has gathered force in the last decade and the study of the book is at last taking its proper place in cultural history here, the ex libris deserves more recognition as part of this enquiry.

Nearly thirty years ago Maureen Byrne and I did a pioneering study of a major country-house library in New South Wales. We published the results of that hands-on investigation of the Macarthur family library at Camden Park in the Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand in 1977 and commented incidentally on the usage of bookplates from the time of John Macarthur (who died in 1834), through his children James and William Macarthur, James' only child, Elizabeth Onslow and her son James Macarthur-Onslow. These four generations presided over the first century of the assembling of the major library which was in the later Victorian period largely housed at Camden Park.

There are four surviving bookplates which were used by the Macarthur family during this period. The founding John's widow Elizabeth had a plain plate with the family surname above 'Camden Park' (the new house finished in 1835), surmounted by the motto 'Fide et opera' and a laurel wreath. John and Elizabeth's sons James and William commissioned two separate plates showing both their names, below a coat of arms, the family motto and the laurel wreath. One of these James-and-'William plates was finely engraved by Raphael Clint who had a stormy career as a lithographer in Sydney from 1834 until 1849, but principally in the late 1830s. It is Clint who is credited with introducing armorial bookplates to Australia, but the other bookplate, of similar design but square in shape, was by John Gardner Austin (who sold his lithographic equipment to Clint in 1838). The two James-and-William bookplates likely to date from the 1830s like the Camden Park plate, were never replaced although James lived on to 1867 and William to 1882. Finally the Macarthur-Onslows had a bookplate, with the Macarthur motto and the wreath above the name of Onslow and the Onslow motto and device above Macarthur.

The use of these four bookplates is a salutary warning for the naive. There were ample stocks of the simplest, Camden Park, plate and long after Elizabeth Macarthur was dead it was still in use: it was inserted, for example, in the catalogue of the Paris World Fair of 1855. Per contra, there is still at Camden Park a set of the 1805 three-decker edition of Lady Hertford's letters which was given as a present in 1808 to John Macarthur's daughter Elizabeth: but only volumes 1 and 2 bear the Camden Park bookplate while volume 3 has the Clint version of her brothers' plate.

From the evidence of book-bills in the Macarthur Papers, we know that the original John bought Alexander Henderson's History of Ancient and Modern Wines in 1824 but it contains the bookplate of James and William. Similarly the Macarthur-Onslow armorial plate was put into some of the books which were listed in the 1854 catalogue, such as Roger North's life of the first Lord Guilford published in 1819. The sumptuous twelve-volume set of Loddiges' Botanical Cabinet, published between 1817 and 1826, bears the Clint label of James and William which cannot be earlier than 1835.

All this is a useful reminder that we must be careful in the way we use the evidence of ownership and date of acquisition. But it should also make us aware of the social history expressed in the mere fact of having these bookplates at all. Another well-to-do grazier, Andrew Brown of Cooerwull near Lithgow, might sign his copy of Hugh Miller's Legends of the North of Scotland or the Traditional History of Cromarty, published in Edinburgh in 1857, but his stature as the laird of the Bowenfels area prompted him to place opposite his signature a finely engraved bookplate confirming that this was indeed the possession of 'Mr A. Brown, Cooerwull'. But Mr Brown did not have a Latin motto or a laurel wreath.
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Author:Jack, Ian
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Geographic Code:8AUNS
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Previous Article:The Australian Bookplate Society.
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