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Cambridge Bookplate

The art of ex libris has been my passion and primary focus since 1977. In school, my studies included graphic design and photography at the Massachusetts College of Art. From there I went on to pursue an exciting career in the New England graphic arts field. What I mean to say is that there was rarely a dull moment during my three decades in this business.

It was late 1977 when I met Laurence R. Cohen, a distinguished Boston attorney and bibliophile. I produced fine steel & copperplate engraved stationery for him. Mr. Cohen insisted on using luxurious Crane’s “Kid Finish” paper — Extra 100% cotton content that simply means all new cotton is used. In his office one afternoon, we discussed his ideas for a personal bookplate. I accepted the challenge and my colleague, Linda J. Popper, illustrated Raquel & Laurie Cohen’s mark of ownership. This illustrated bookplate represents the dual careers and interests of this couple, it is printed in a shade of burgundy ink on a bright white Kid Finish. I printed bookplates for their library and note cards to send to their friends.

It started here: MY CHILDHOOD BOOKPLATE from the 1950s. Could this be an Antioch Bookplate? Just to be sure, you can see that I wrote my name on it twice

Exploring the bookplate art form, I discovered that many collections were held in institutions throughout the Boston area. Some of these collections were tragically “lost” or rather neglected for 30+ years. I spent days-weeks-months visiting libraries, looking at bookplates, learning about the artists, compiling checklists and evaluating condition of the plates. My friends and I would schedule appointments to visit the Print Department at the Boston Public Library. We’d spend hours at the library looking at bookplates and talking about the designs. Librarians would generally offer me one or several of their library’s bookplates as did bookbinders and printers that I worked with. 

Cohen Bookplate by Linda J. Popper, 1978

I found great pleasure in browsing through old bookshops in Boston and Harvard Square. While browsing I searched for bookplates. Always rummaging through antique shops, second hand stores and flea markets for ex libris labels. In Cambridge one often found a box of old books sitting along the sidewalk usually with a hand lettered sign that reads FREE. This is where the obsession began. As a born collector, I was vulnerable and quickly succumbed to the disease for bookplate collecting.

Bookplate for Arthur M. Schlesinger (1888-1965) Found in the Linnean Street trash, Cambridge, Massachusetts Bookplates are where you find them! Another punning bookplate gem for Mr. Bookman. Found in the Mount Auburn street trash in Harvard Square, Cambridge.


The first exhibition of contemporary ex libris, about 1980.

In 1978, I organized the Cambridge Bookplate Company. We produced only custom-designed bookplates. Because of my activity in the graphic arts community, I continued to introduce my friends to the art form and many designed and hand printed bookplates for our project. Our first small exhibition included more than one dozen contemporary artists. Our works were presented at the Cambridge Art Association, Concord Art Association, Saint Botolph Club (Boston), Social Law Library (Boston). Eventually, I planned to produce an annual series of limited edition designs, but never got around to it. I feel confident that we will accomplish this someday through the ASBC&D.

Cambridge Bookplate Trademark (printing press by Albrecht Durer, 1511)

So, I did not enter this field of collecting as a librarian, scholar or historian. I was not in search of a charming hobby interest. Like some of our members, I entered as a graphic artist, enthusiast and a would-be entrepreneur. Through simple test marketing and the strategic placement of classified advertising, Cambridge Bookplate took off like a rocket. It was exciting to see the dozens of inquiries that would arrive at the mailbox everyday. Really overwhelming as I could hardly keep up with the demand for custom work.

T.J. Lyons/J.P. Keenan (1982)

Two years later I finally met with ASBC&D director, Audrey Spencer Arellanes at her home in Alhambra, California. We visited over the course of a couple of days and talked about bookplates and made a delightful trek to the Huntington Library. I promptly joined the Society and started enjoying exchanges and correspondence with such legendary members as Fridolf Johnson, Dan Burne Jones, Elmer Porter, Whitney McDermut, James Hayes, Nicholas Lippoczy, Ichigoro Uchida, Cliff Parfit, Richard Schimmelpfeng, Edith Rights, Klaus Roedel, Mario de Filippis, and many, many others. I am certain that nearly every ASBC&D member has at least 1 or 2 examples of bookplates belonging to these important collectors. By the way, I must mention that in commissioning bookplates, writing letters and EXCHANGE is how we collect ex libris!

Linocut bookplate by John Barnard

During the early 80s I took a job with the T.J. Lyons Press in Boston. Walking into his cluttered letterpress shop was like taking a step back into the late nineteenth century. Tom “T.J.” Lyons was a Master Printer and a world famous collector of antique types & ornaments — all of the Victorian era. Our hand printed presswork was recognized everywhere. I kept my early bookplate collection, organized by country, in Tom’s empty “Blackstone Cigar” boxes. With guidance from Lyons, my interest in bookplates developed at his shop. I printed several designs for friends and for the numerous customers of Cambridge Bookplate. I worked with T.J. up to the day he passed on at age 92 in 1986.

During the fall of 1984 I had my first major exhibition of contemporary ex libris at the Boston Athenaeum. This magnificent library has held membership with our society for many years. Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum is a private subscription library. There are Oriental carpets on the floors throughout and marble busts wherever you look. Here we displayed over 400 ex libris by artists representing 28 nations.

R.L. Sleeth Mitchell linocut ex libris by Michael van Houte Wood engraving by Richard Horton

Soon after this exhibition, I traveled around the States and Canada visiting libraries and bookplate collections. During this time, I organized several exhibitions of international bookplates in New England. These were presented at Harvard University, Boston Public Library, Social Law Library, University of Connecticut at Storrs, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Providence Athenaeum, to name a few.

Leslie Benenson

In 1992 Cambridge Bookplate published the first directory, American Artists of the Bookplate. Determined to get the title into print and without any special publication budget at all, I simply used my Master-Card. The text contained short biographies of 75 artists in a limited Smythesewn edition. Initially 1,000 copies were printed, but more than half of the edition was later sent to the recycle bin. Back in ’92 every member of the ASBC&D received a complimentary copy and for bookplate collectors this material had never been documented before. In 1996, I published another rare second edition of this directory that provided more comprehensive text and new artists. This second edition included the works of 100 contemporary artists from the United States & Canada.

1992 Edition 1996 Edition

Collectors and libraries looking for custom bookplates still write to us through the ASBC&D’s website. Once again, it may be the time for Cambridge Bookplate to publish a revised, limited edition catalog to include contemporary artists from throughout the Americas. There is so much fresh, new activity in Latin America that I’d like to produce a special edition for ASBC&D members with tipped-in original prints alongside the American artists’ biographies. Another worthy publication project for development.

Long before email, websites, Facebook, Linked-In and Skype these books were marketed through classified advertisements. For years, we included major library publications, school magazines and any free reviews or publicity I could get my hands on. These ads were targeted to both artists and collectors. In addition to the advertising, Cambridge Bookplate participated in library trade shows generating scores of satisfied customers. Then continuous, repeat advertising in American Artist, HOW, Print Magazine and many others sparked the interest with graphic artists nationwide.

Designed by Concepcion Elvira Woodcut bookplate designed and printed by Bruce Chandler of the Heron Press, Boston
Designed by James Hayes Designed by Anthony Russo

In my ongoing pursuit of free publicity for bookplate art I actively solicited various popular and professional magazines. Every day generated new letters, phone calls and proposals. Library Journal, American Libraries (ALA), Antiquarian Bookman, Better Homes & Gardens, Christian Science Monitor, Victoria Magazine, Bostonia Magazine, Print Magazine, American Artist, Bookways, Antiques & Collecting, Boston Globe and dozens more. Stellar reviews were always received for the efforts of Cambridge Bookplate for our directories and exhibitions.

T. J. Lyons / J. P. Keenan

Today we design, print or engrave bookplates for customers around the world. The ASBC&D’s new, updated traveling exhibition of contemporary artists is in the works. The Society has already initiated regional meetings and soon a biennial national meeting. There are already several museums throughout the world that are dedicated to the art of the bookplate. Thanks to the generosity of several of our members there will be an inauguration of the first bookplate museum in the Americas! This all started with the activities of Cambridge Bookplate more than 30 years ago.

Appearing in American Libraries, Harpers, Library Journal, Harvard Magazine, Atlantic, AB Bookman, etc. Appearing in American Artist, Print, HOW, etc.

Now, let’s read a bit about the way YOU got involved with collecting bookplates. Send us your testimony today. Clearly, this will help you to build on your collection.

Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan