It’s time. I must bring to your attention the least essential controversy of 114 years ago: nude bookplates.
Yes, everyone loves a good ex libris, and time was when no serious reader would be without one—but you couldn’t just go slapping any old thing on your flyleaves. You had to exercise good taste. In a 1902 book called Book-plates of To-day, Wilbur Macey Stone—whose very name conjures many constipated nights with a musty tome by the fireside—lays out a few aesthetic guidelines for the bookplate connoisseur. And it isn’t long before he gets to the big issues.
“I have the temerity,” Stone writes, “to open a new field of battle and throw down the gauntlet for strife. The Eternal Feminine is a prominent factor in the picture book-plates of the day, and she is showing some tendencies to appear minus her apparel. Question: Is it wise and in good taste?”
His verdict: a resounding no.
Well, not so resounding, maybe. Stone is totally in favor of nudity in bookplates, as long as the nudes follow a few simple rules, all of which you must bear in mind the next time you disrobe for a bookplate portraitist:
- Don’t let on that you know you’re naked. “A nude figure should never carry the idea of a consciousness of its nudity!”
- Take it all off: “clothing or drapery used simply to hide portions of the figure is execrable and more suggestive than any entire absence of clothing.”
- Yes, even your heels: “to add, as I have seen done, a hat and French-heeled shoes to a nude figure is abominable beyond condemnation.”
- Got a headdress? Leave it at home. “Armand Rassenfosse, of Belgium, has etched a number of dainty, faultlessly drawn and really most beautiful nudes, but many of them have been ruined by the needless addition of shoes and fancy head-dresses.”
- Remember to pay obeisance to our Lord and savior: “it must deviate not one jot or tittle from the divine, for any deviation is to tend to the earthy and gross, which is vulgar.”
You’d be surprised, though, how few early twentieth-century nude bookplates conform to these rules. Stone casts his withering gaze upon all of them. To his credit, he’s always sure to spare a few kind words for the artists before brutally dismissing their work. “The design for Emil Gerhäuser is inoffensive and well-drawn,” he says of one, “but surely is not beautiful, and lacks a good excuse for existence.” Then onto the next:
In a generally pleasing decorative arrangement for Robert H. Smith, Harold Nelson, an English designer, shows a rather attenuated nude maiden looking with envy at a gorgeous peacock on the opposite side of the design; while the peacock in turn seems to say, “Why don’t you grow some feathers?”
So are there any permissible nudes in his survey? Yes, kind of. Stone singles out a plate by one E. D. French, so exquisite and sensitive in its rendering of the human form that even he can’t resist its charms. “The design shows a nude shepherd boy piping to his flock,” he writes, “and is elegant and beautiful, an ideal plate.”
Below, some of the many nude bookplates that didn’t pass muster.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.