You are here

A Word from Cliff in England: the Jester in Ex Libris

Since writing this essay, I’ve examined, through the miracle of email, two superb modern ‘jester’ plates from the James P. Keenan collection. One by Konstantin Kalonvich for A. Selle, shows a smiling Till Eulenspiegel with the traditional adjuncts of owl and mirror, but also with some more whimsical images — the asses ears on the man reflected in the glass, trimmings of feathers, and a snail creeping along at the border. What here, were the secret fancies of the owner who had commissioned the plate, and what those of the fertile mind of the artist? A plate, clearly on which to meditate at length, and with pleasure!

The superficially similar plate by Hristo Kerin for Gilbert van der Moere, is a more thoughtful icon, in my opinion a considerable tour de force, by an artist so far unknown to me, but whose work I hope to see much more of in the future. It is an engraved bookplate, superbly executed, of a jester ‘in the sky with diamonds’. The face might well be a portrait, and he is treading a slim tightrope representing, I guess, the kind of hazardous gambit which many of us have encountered in our personal or vocational lives. The whole characterization, with its affectionately scrupulous assiduity in the delineation of fabrics and setting, suggests to me that the engraver’s art is spectacularly alive in the modern ex libris world, with firm foundations back to Durer and Rembrandt and bypassing the abstract, symbolic and ‘lets shockem’ styles that have for some time now, begun to elicit the ‘ho-hum’ of satiation and boredom. 

The Jester in Bookplates

In the courts of Henry VIII and his two female heirs, the jester was a privileged person whom might criticise or ridicule the monarch, of course within reason and provided he was amusing or witty; he also played the lute, sang charming or bawdy songs, and told jokes. Shakespeare’s jesters or ‘fools’ as they were called in many of his plays, were often rather serious; like modern stand-up comics they needed to be clever to seem foolish, though their songs were often wry comment on the play. Traditionally they dressed in parti-colored clothes of contrasting colors — often wearing a strange, pointed cap with bells, though fashions for jesters changed a lot from time to time.

But why were they, and are they still, such popular subjects for bookplates? Well, they are amusing, but more important than this, is the manner in which they represent the comic uncertainty of life, the random spark of success and haphazard stroke of death or failure. Shakespeare’s jester Feste sings:

Come away, come away Death
And in sad Cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away Breath
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

This of course is still a common defeat, to be crossed or cheated in love, and so sings the heartless jester who represents our fickle fate and often teases us on a bookplate. Such ex libris are usually adult creations for booklovers who have experienced some of the tough exigencies of life, who expect no easy rides or free lunches, and like Lewis Carroll’s eldest oyster in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, shake the head warily at life.

Emile Orlik’s ‘jesters’ on ex libris are often stringently sober. At the height of his highly successful career in brilliant, innovative art, he found as did thousands of other outstanding Germans in many important spheres of life, that his Jewish ancestry was likely to block all further success and social acceptance, and all because of the maniac plans of never-to-be-forgotten Hitler, which were already being acclaimed during the last few years before the artist’s death in 1932, just four years before his pupil Eric Buttner, who also showed jesters in his bookplates and who died a recluse aged 47 in 1936 when Art like Science and Music were coming under the dreaded heel of the Nazi storm-troopers.

Orlik’s most famous ‘jester’ plate in superb lithograph, shows a huge smiling figure all in red, carrying over his shoulder a grim medieval flail-type weapon designed to smash through shield and helmet – the kind of argument which had often been far too popular in Germany. Another Orlik plate from his salad days in 1897, is designed for a lawyer. Above the Owl of Wisdom, ink, pen, books and vellum scrolls, is a jester’s cap with bells — perhaps indicating that ‘The Law is an Ass’ as it often has shown itself since the days of Socrates! For his own plate, similarly produced in the same year, Orlik shows his portrait as a cynical madcap or demon, with an owl in jester’s headgear rather uncomfortably perched on the side of his head. What a range of symbolism is there intended! But perhaps it could have been fully appreciated only by himself. The same wise bird with fool’s cap is perched on a Mask of Tragedy in a plate for theatre man Lutzenkirchen. As in may of his plates, Orlik’s consummate lithographic skill gives the impression of additional colors or shades of color.

In a more cheerful plate by Julias Singer 1917, a jester, again with an attendant perched owl, is grinding coffee in one of those old fashioned hand cranked coffee-mills with which a willing but nervously clumsy student, a guest at the elegant home of a rich girlfriend, spilled the delicious and expensive coffee beans over the kitchen floor. I was certainly not a clever jester on that occasion!

In two etched plates for Robert Heinemann by Fritz Blum (dated I imagine, in the early part of the 20th century), there are a couple of jester plates on fine handmade paper — each one is shown shouldering an owl — as seemed almost to be a fashion of the time. The first seemed to be a portrait of a known person dancing on a globe, obviously representative of the world, and holding two strings in his hands on which are spitted the bodies of helpless people. So what is this rather terrifying image intended to show? No doubt that human beings are destined to be Lilliputians in the grip of heedless Fate? The other matching plate (they are both from the collection of Paul C. Becker with his tiny ownership stamp on the verso as I have often found on fine quality bookplates which I have bought over the years) shows a different, more passive jester, who is showing crowded men and women their images in a large hand mirror. They all recoil in horror! So what (one must wonder) had they been up to?

From 1917 comes an ex libris by V. Rohling comes a rare female jester though also of course with an owl. Using a large magnifying glass, she is examining a statue of a naked girl, who is perched on a pedestal of large books. Is she wandering perhaps whether beauty is more than skin deep?

Doctor Till’s ex libris is a splendid etching on fine 8vo off-white printing card. To me this offers at least one meaning to the jester’s owl, as in his right hand he holds a mirror, thus making up, with the name Till Eulenspiegel, a well known impudent trickster figure of Low German folklore. One must suspect that Doctor Till enjoyed joining in this joke.

Lastly, though this article is merely an introduction into the story of bookplate jesters, comes a frightening figure — even more so perhaps, than those of Emil Orlik, a grim black-clad jester in a superbly drawn plate by Karl Schwalbach from 1907. It is merely a zinco, though printed on fine quality, creamy-white paper. The awesome figure of the jester has a cartwheel ruff as worn by the stern figures of Orphanage Trustees in their portraits by Frans Hals in that lovely little museum never to be missed, in delightful Haarlem. Like some terrifying spider the magisterial jester strides across the chessboard of life to remove one of the last pieces remaining on the board – a most memorable image. Does it not bring to mind Milton’s ‘Blind Fury with the abhorred shears that slits the thin-spun life’?

Bookplates are great adult fun, but they also bring to the lives of booklovers an element of very secret beauty. They are of course intended to be enjoyed in private, and yet as may be seen here they often encompass a whole world of deep cogitation, emotion, out-reach to wisdom, and the beauty, terror and joy of life.

Note: A scholarly jester may be seen in the ex libris of Francis Wilson, an American theatre man, which is illustrated in ‘The Art of the Bookplate’ by James P. Keenan and I feel sure that even more recent jester bookplates are to be found. And what do they all signify? …. Well.


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan