Mark J Ferson
AN UNFORESEEN, and exciting, by-product of the launch of the New Australian Bookplate Society in Blackheath in October 2005, at least to this far-gone bookplate historian, was the unearthing of a box of letters formerly belonging to Sydney collector Blanche Milligan (Figure 1). After the notice of the launch and exhibition appeared in the Blue Mountains Gazette 1, the writer received a phone call from Blanche’s niece, who offered the letters for sale. In early January 2006, I duly made the visit and concluded the transaction to the satisfaction of both seller and buyer, and brought the letters home with the hope of filling some of the (many) missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle which is the history of Australian bookplates in the golden period from the 1890s to the 1950s.
Margaret Blanche Milligan (1863-1947), trained midwife, was one of our earliest bookplate devotees, renowned by the early 1920s for her fine collection 2. She was an assiduous, and often assertive, letter writer in pursuit of bookplate exchanges. The collection comprises approximately 60 complete or fragmentary letters and bookplate society notices dated between 1912 and 1934. It can roughly be divided into two groups: correspondence with Australian book plate collectors and artists; and correspondence with American collectors.
Sadly, this minor treasure must have been only a small fraction of Blanche’s entire bookplate correspondence, the remainder presumably dispersed, lost or discarded. For example, her letters of 1938-39 to another early Australian collector, Jane Windeyer, were described in the late John Fletcher’s catalogue of Ms Windeyer’s bookplates; but there are no Windeyer letters in the collection 3.
Of the Australian letters, the treasure box includes multiple items of correspondence from bookplate collector and promoter P Neville Barnett, from artist-collectors George D Perrottet and Ella Dwyer, from collector E G Boreham and from eminent artist Elioth Gruner. In addition there are single letters from a number of collectors and artists such as Jane Shaw on behalf of her husband, etcher G Gayfield Shaw; and from printmaker Ethel Spowers.
These letters reveal some (perhaps not world-shattering) bookplate secrets not previously known to this writer, at least. Neville Barnett’s pivotal role in encouraging other collectors is supported by his letter to Blanche which recalls how he started her on the road to bookplate collecting. There is also an account dated 22 October 1912 from society stationers John & Edward Bumpus, of 350 Oxford Street, London, addressed to “P. Neville Barnett Esqre”. Several of Blanche’s bookplates date from 1912, one of them a delicate engraved plate signed by W P Barrett, who headed the bookplate department of this prestigious London firm (Figure 2). Neville Barnett undoubtedly arranged the execution of this bookplate for Blanche in London, as he had himself com-missioned an engraved “WPB” bookplate the same year. Based on the quality and status of such designs he was able to exchange bookplates with collectors across the globe. Accordingly, he advised Australian collectors to commission a bookplate of this standard, as the gateway to the international bookplate world, even if they, like him, were forced to scrape pennies together.
Carried away with the enthusiasm caught from Neville Barnett, Blanche commissioned two additional personal bookplates in 1912, an etching from Lionel Lindsay and a pen-and-ink design from Bulletin artist D H Souter, the latter featuring her much favoured fox terrier (Figure 3). Significantly, there is an undated letter from artist Elioth Gruner in which he recalls that he had arranged for Lindsay to design Blanche’s bookplate “many years ago…in a little shop in Bligh St”. In the absence of any functioning bookplate society in either Australia or the United Kingdom, around 1915 Blanche joined the American Bookplate Society, and various of that Society’s notices are nestled among her letters.
This is all that remains of the evidence of the first period of Australian bookplate collecting, terminated by the First World War. Blanche’s remaining letters date from the bookplate heyday marked by the existence of the Australian Ex Libris Society (1923-1939). Many of the letters are from fellow collectors seeking bookplate exchanges. However, the five letters from G D Perrottet dated between October 1931 and March 1932 give insights into the precariousness of things in the years after the Great Depression, and the importance of bookplates as a source of income for a gifted designer. Over this short period, Perrottet recounts how he has been encouraged (probably by Neville Barnett) to collect bookplates, and that he has provided original bookplates for Barnett to tip into his self-published Pictorial Book-plates (1931), and states, in a letter from December 1931, how he is too impecunious to afford to join the Australian Ex Libris Society:
… times are too bad, and the needs of my family too multitudinous for me to be able to pay away subscriptions, so I am perforce waiting until business improves, and my income recovers from the buffets it has received in the last 18 months.
Perrottet’s last letter to Blanche in this collection, dated 16 March 1932, strikes an optimistic note, for both his financial position and social life:
I have had two or three commissions for bookplates lately, and on the strength of them I joined the Society, for which I am very glad, as I have met several congenial people, most of whom I gather are also friends of yours…
Which brings us neatly back to Blanche Milligan, whose American letters must be the subject of a future essay.
1. ‘Bookplate expert hopes to revive art’, Blue Mountains Gazette, 19 Oct 2005,p. 35
2. ‘Ex libris. Women’s interest. A growing popularity’, Sun (Sydney), 2 Aug 1923,p. 13.
3. John Fletcher, The Jane Windeyer bookplate collection in the University of Sydney Library. A catalogue. Sydney, Book Collectors’ Society of Australia, 1990.