Bell on Bookplates

Amongst many areas of research, Christine Bell has taken a special interest in Bookplates. A great supporter of CAM, Bell has been assisting us in identifying and housing CAMs fine collection of Bookplates. In this reflection, Bell places this most fabulous bookplate by Eric Thake within a brief introduction to this longstanding art form, the artist and his subject, the dynamic Jean Daley. Thake’s Bookplate is currently exhibited in The Unquiet Landscape, curated by Jenny Long in the Higgins Gallery.

Eric Thake Jean Daley Bookplate Op. 12, 1930. Castlemaine Art Museum. Gift of Henry [Harry] Blake Muir, 1984. Image: Ian Hill

Ex libris—they’re Latin words meaning from the books of—are known as bookplates in the English-speaking world. Typically, they are small labels featuring graphic images marking ownership through the inscription of a personal or institutional name.

The tradition of marking books goes back to the 15th century, when the invention of Gutenberg’s movable type around 1440 meant that books could be produced in numbers, in contrast to the hand-inscribed and hand-illustrated manuscripts copied in scriptoria in monasteries. The first designs were heraldic, decorated with the coats of arms of their affluent owners, one of the earliest known being a woodcut by Wolf Traut for Christoph Scheurl in 1512. Pictorial bookplates came into use in the mid 19th century, although in 1524 Albrecht Durer had engraved a portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer as Pirckheimer’s personal ex libris.

Some four hundred years later, in 1930, Eric Thake (1904–1982) made this plate for Jean Daley. Thake told the collector RH Croll that “I always go for a strong abstract design, absolutely personal to the owner, and cut with the utmost economy of line, together with a strong use of blacks”. When I first saw the image many years ago, I had no idea who Jean Daley was, but assumed that she must have been an activist because of the raised fist and open-mouthed figure standing on a pile of books arranged like a soap box. If, as Robert Hughes once said, the image is the text, as a personification of the owner, it is an almost perfect fit.

Jean [originally Jane] Daley was born in September 1881 in Mt Gambier, South Australia, the daughter of a man who was an early member of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union. She was nine during the 1891 shearers’ strike of 1891, and so grew up in a politically alert household. After schooling in Portland, she went to live in Melbourne, but after the birth of her child in 1906, she returned to live with her parents at Wallacedale, near Hamilton. In 1909 she returned to Melbourne and became active in Labor politics, her focus on general industrial subjects from 1914 onwards coinciding with the duration of World War I. Bitterly opposed to Billy Hughes’s conscription campaign, she organised the Labor Women’s Anti-Conscription Committee in October 1916, and was a speaker at its Yarra Bank demonstration on 21 October. She campaigned avidly against the high cost of living, alcohol consumption and the dangers of venereal disease. Her activism extended to the Militant Propaganda League, and she became an executive member of the Victorian Socialist Party

When Vida Goldstein stood as a candidate for the seat of Kooyong in 1917, Jean Daley was not among her supporters. Instead, during the 1922 federal electoral campaign Daley herself stood for the Kooyong electorate as Labor’s first endorsed electoral candidate. She did not win, of course, but, undeterred, she continued to campaign actively for pacifism, the industrial organisation of women, and the protection and education of children. When she died in November 1948, an obituary noted that “when Miss Daley is not working for the ALP, she is dreaming about it.”

Thake, born in Auburn in 1904, trained under George Bell, and so became associated with the “moderns”. He began to design bookplates in 1926. This image of Thake’s embodies the feisty energy and strength of conviction of its subject. As such, it is one of the most evocative bookplates made in Australia, in the 20th century, and earned international recognition from the Ex Libris Association International meeting in Los Angeles in 1931, with an Honorable Mention.

This plate was part of a gift of eight to the Castlemaine Art Museum from the important bookplate collector Henry [Harry] Blake Muir in 1984, two years before his death in 1986. CAM has a further 28 bookplates by Thake, part of a gift from Patrick Corrigan in 1999. An exhibition of Thake watercolours, drawings and prints was held at CAM, including some of his linocut Christmas cards.

If the image is the text, as Hughes remarked, the viewer could make an educated guess that the subject of this one was an agitator/demonstrator. Now that you do know something about Jean Daley, you must agree that the image of the feisty Jean Daley, “absolutely personal”, is an evocation of a remarkable woman of utter political conviction and passion.

Australian Dictionary of Biography
Robert Henderson Croll, Checklist of the bookplates of Eric Thake. Melbourne, The Hawthorn Press, 1942.

Christine Bell
August 2020

Christine Bell

Christine Bell is Honorary Curator of the Bookplate Collection, State Library of Victoria. From 1981 to 2001 Bell was Head of the Picture Library at the State Library. CAM is honored to be amongst a number of illustrious cultural organisations supported by Christine Bell.

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