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'Art of Ownership' exhibition

Photo courtesy of Rosemary Krill

UD graduate student curates Philadelphia show on bookplates

University of Delaware doctoral student Alexander Ames is the curator of a new exhibition in Philadelphia featuring what he says are “beautiful, miniature works of art” that have been largely overlooked by scholars.

The works on display at the Rosenbach Museum and Library are bookplates—the small labels affixed to books to designate the owner that are often ornately or imaginatively designed to convey more than just the owner’s name.

The Art of Ownership: Bookplates and Book Collectors from 1480 to the Present opened Sept. 21 at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia and is on view through Jan. 17.

It features what the museum calls “beautiful and curious specimens from five centuries of books.” The bookplates in the exhibition come from the Rosenbach’s collection and the University of Delaware’s William Augustus Brewer Bookplate Collection, in addition to other regional repositories.

Ames received his master’s degree in 2014 from UD’s Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and is a current student in the History of American Civilization doctoral program and in museum studies. While in the Winterthur Program, he knew that he wanted to pursue a career working with rare books and manuscripts, he said, and so he began an internship at the Rosenbach.

While there, Judith M. Guston, the museum’s director of collections and a 1999 graduate of the Winterthur Program, asked him to help prepare an exhibition of bookplates.

“I was surprised and honored when, at the end of my internship, Judy invited me to curate the entire exhibition,” he said. “It was an incredible opportunity to put my academic training to practical use in a museum and library environment.” 

Ames described himself as fortunate to have been able to work with the UD Library Special Collections and with the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, which is privately owned but associated with the UD Library Special Collections, to obtain bookplates for the show.

“I am thrilled to have been able to highlight the University so prominently in this show, alongside loans from other institutions including the Library Company of Philadelphia,” he said.

As a result of working on the exhibition, Ames is working with Samuels Lasner to co-curate an exhibition titled Grolier Club Bookplates Past and Present, to be displayed at the Grolier Club, the nation's oldest bibliophilic society, in New York City beginning in November.

“The show will serve to complement the Rosenbach exhibition and draw new attention to this important art form,” Ames said. 

More about the Rosenbach and ‘The Art of Ownership’

The Rosenbach, which was founded in 1954 and became affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation in 2013, is at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Center City.

For directions and information about admission fees and hours, visit the website.

Notable bookplates in The Art of Ownership include the oldest known printed bookplate, a hand-colored woodcut dating to about 1480; bookplates from the personal libraries of King George III and Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt; an Irish landscape designed by Jack Butler Yeats; and prints by Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

Some bookplates offer what the Rosenbach describes as whimsical portraits of the book collectors. For example, William Keeney Bixby's bookplate depicts the owner as an octopus grasping books with all eight tentacles, and a lithographic print belonging to E. Norman Sabel depicts an attentive reader who has not noticed that his coattails are on fire.

The Art of Ownership was made possible by a grant from the Pine Tree Foundation of New York and endowment grants from the Marilyn M. Simpson Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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