An ex-libris is the first sign of the love of a collector for his books. The first ex-libris that I saw belonged to my grandfather, Jean Mouillefarine, who died in 1965 when I was three years old. He was an active member of the many literary and bibliophilic societies that flourished in continental Europe, particularly in France and the Netherlands, where there is such a long tradition of printing and publishing. Unfortunately his huge library was sold, and I have spent many years trying to reassemble it by means of his ex-libris, which was made by Stern, the great Parisian imprimeur-graveur. The firm still exists, and recently merged with Boisnard, another famous printing and paper shop, in rue La Boétie.
I was born into the printing and paper business, as my family owned Les Papeteries de La Couronne in La Couronne near Angoulême. During my childhood, I spent my holidays in the factory where, in my grandfather’s time, women were employed to paint by hand the black borders on the faire-part announcements for funerals. My father taught me the different types of paper, which are such an important feature in French book production and bibliophily, and I learnt to distinguish between papier vélin d’arches, japon nacre, verge and so on.
As a child, I grew up amongst books in my father’s apartment in Paris. He was a great reader, although not a collector of books. Our pastimes were so different in the days before social media; I can’t remember ever being without a book. I read all of Jules Verne and most of Victor Hugo; Zola I disliked in my youth, but I later came to appreciate his accurate depiction of French society. From an early age, I never borrowed books from a library, because I didn’t like the idea of having to return them. To avoid becoming a thief, I decided to buy my books from the bouquinistes along the Seine, where I could find interesting material very cheaply. I developed an interest in books on Normandy and the novelists from that part of France, which is a region that I love.
I was a boarder at École des Roches in Verneuil-sur-Avre, where each house of the school had its own library. Reading was a very important part of our education. As the school was in Normandy I became interested in Jean de la Varende, who wrote a number of books about this province. He was born in 1887 at Château de Bonneville in Chamblac, and is now best remembered for his novel the Nez de Cuir. He wasn’t amongst the first rank of novelists, but he was very interested in every aspect of book production. L’Eau is a good example of his attention to detail in the printing and illustration of his books.
There is an artistic dimension in the interaction of the writer, the artist and the publisher, which typifies the livre d’artiste, in which the French continue to excel. The interest in fine printing is still highly developed in France, and collectors have plenty of opportunity to enhance their library by upgrading their books from trade editions to limited editions, typically limited to less than three hundred copies. In such cases, they may contain original works of art, numbered and signed by the artist, and woodcuts, lithographs and engravings printed under the artist’s supervision. If I ever return to my original interest in certain French authors, I would definitely buy their work in the most luxurious editions available.
My father’s apartment in Paris was in the Latin Quarter and, in those days, there were at least thirty bookshops in our neighbourhood. We lived almost next door to one of the best, Librairie Saffroy in rue Clément, which specialises in genealogy and heraldry, two of my great interests. It was started by Gaston Saffroy, who was an accomplished genealogist and the author of the monumental Bibliographie généalogique, héraldique et nobiliaire de la France des origines à nos jours. Imprimé et manuscrits, published in five large quarto volumes between 1968 and 1988. The Librairie Bonnefoi in rue de Seine
was a right-wing bookshop, where François Mitterand was a big customer. As a youngster Mitterand had been a supporter of L’Action française, of which Charles Maurras was one of the founders at the end of the nineteenth century. Maurras was a political theorist whose ‘integral nationalism’ had much in common with the ideas of fascism. In effect, the supporters of L’Action française were opposed to liberty, equality and fraternity, the ideals of the French Revolution. Although Mitterand was influenced by the political writings of Charles Maurras, he decided to go over to the other side for the advancement of his political career. When part of his library was sold in December 2018 by the Paris auction house Piasa for 1.5 million euros, 70 per cent of the books were by right-wing authors. Although President Mitterand was a bibliophile and liked to have copies of his books in limited editions and finely bound, he had no ex-libris.
After I left school, I joined the army and embarked on the military period of my life, which has been of great importance to me. The study of history and military science formed part of my education as the fourth generation of army officers in my family. In fact my early interest in collecting first expressed itself in a fascination with my grandfathers’ medals, and I collected all the military medals that France produced from the time of Napoleon I to the Fifth Republic. When I joined the army, I found plenty of opportunity to continue my reading. Army fatigues are very well designed with pockets on the trouser legs just big enough to hold a paperback.
Returning to civilian life, I eventually settled in Belgium, an excellent country for a bibliophile, where the study of the ex-libris has been taken very seriously. The Belgian entomologist, Albert Collart (1899-1993), assembled a collection of 80,000 ex-libris, and had 200 versions of his own ex-libris. He was a frequent contributor to the bulletin of the Association Belge des Collectionneurs et Dessinateurs d’Ex-libris, which was active during the 1950s. When the ABCDE ceased to exist, he became a founder member of a new association and a regular contributor to its journal, Graphia. Tijdschrift voor Exlibriskunst. From time to time I have been offered collections of ex-libris, especially in Portugal, but I don’t feel that the ex-libris is an end in itself. Therefore I prefer to concentrate on the study of the subject and collect the journals, publications and ephemera produced by the various ex-libris associations, since the British Ex Libris Society, founded in 1891, inspired similar developments abroad - for example, the Exlibris Verein zu Berlin in 1892, and the Société française de Collectionneurs d’Ex-libris in Paris in the following year. Today the Association française pour la Connaissance de l’Ex-Libris is the only specialist organisation in France devoted to the study of the subject. It’s affiliated to the Fédération Internationale de Sociétés d’Associations d’Ex-libris, which has over forty participating associations worldwide. The Bookplate Society in Britain is a member, and is hosting FISAE’s 38th congress in Cambridge next year. Congresses have taken place almost every two years since the first one in Austria in 1953.
Although I don’t collect ex-libris per se, I would always buy a book if it contained an interesting example. I’m trying to reassemble my grandfather’s library by means of his ex-libris. One of the most touching and poignant examples in my collection is a book with the ex-libris of a gentleman called Jules Darcet, whose library in Ypres was destroyed in 1914. After the war, he had an ex-libris designed with an image of his library in ruins to remind him of the many pleasant hours spent among his dear books. I don’t understand how someone can be a bibliophile without having an ex-libris. It shows the importance that you attach to the object. The urge to label it in some way dates back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Amenhotep III, one of the most important kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and his Queen Tiye, possessed what is thought to be the earliest known ex-libris. It’s a faience plaque, now in the British Museum, with two holes for attaching it to a box containing papyri.
In Japan the book seal (zosho-in) was the classic method of identifying the owner. The first ex-libris as such belongs to the Daigoji Temple in Kyoto, and dates from about 1470. The ex-libris of Jean Bertaud de La Tour-Blanche, in a book printed in Paris in 1529, is considered to be the first true example in the European tradition. It’s a woodcut, measuring 80 x 57 mm., depicting Joan of Arc and the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse, with a note to the reader promising that Bertaud would raise a glass to anyone who returned the book if lost. There is only one known example of his ex-libris, and the book is now in the Bibliothèque municipale de Périgueux.
The French Revolution is a particularly interesting period for the study of ex-libris. Many noble families with armorial ex-libris revised the design to reduce the risk of unwanted attention during the revolutionary period. An armorial ex-libris could be dangerous for its owner after the abolition of hereditary titles of nobility in June 1790. Many armorial ex-libris were torn out of books, or adapted to conform with the first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, namely, ‘Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune’.
An armorial ex-libris was by far the most common design before the nineteenth century for the simple reason that only members of a certain social class could aspire to own a library. I particularly enjoy the opportunity to indulge my interest in heraldry in the study of an armorial ex-libris. My own example features the garb, a heraldic term for a wheatsheaf. With the rise of the professional classes, pictorial ex-libris gained in popularity, often featuring library interiors, piles of books and allegorical motifs. My previous ex-libris depicted an eighteenth-century man seated at a writing desk, with a space below the design for my name. As the nineteenth century moved on, designs began to reflect the occupation and tools of the trade of the owners, for whom a library reflected their newly-acquired status. The emblems of their working lives became the ‘heraldry’ of the professional classes, in other words the new aristocracy. The ex-libris of a successful businessman might, for example, incorporate a factory in its design. The industrial scene on the ex-libris of Nicolae Ceausescu is typical of the Communist-style designs depicting the unstoppable march of social progress.
Another prolific category is the curiosa or erotic ex-libris, which is particularly strong in the Japanese and French tradition. Sometimes it can be quite baffling from a psychological point of view. Why would someone put an erotic image in, for example, their copy of Sir Winston Churchill’s The Story of the Malakand Field Force? The British Library has many books on the subject of curiosa ex-libris, which I have been unable to find on the market, despite setting up ‘alerts’ and using all the advantages of the internet, and its incredible opportunities for research. In the last five years, I would say that two-thirds of my books have been bought online. Of course I’m a firm believer that visiting bookshops is one of the pleasures of the bibliophile, and that a conversation with a specialist is far more interesting than typing details into a database.
I believe that book collectors should do their best to support the craftsmen engaged in the arts of the book, from the printers and engravers to the paper-makers and binders, to ensure that their skills are preserved and do not die with them. Unfortunately book-collecting is a minority interest, particularly for the online generation. An interest in the art of the ex-libris is a private passion; it could hardly be more discreet, hidden away inside a book. I’ve just given my granddaughter her first ex-libris, and we put it inside her abécédaire. Adèle can’t read yet, but it’s never too early to develop an appreciation of books.
Interviewed for The Book Collector Summer 2019