Someone seeking a highly personalized ex-libris could commission one directly from an artist. In 1900, William Fowler Hopson (1849-1935) designed a bookplate for William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943). Phelps was a professor of English literature at Yale and the faculty sponsor for the founding of the Elizabethan Club in 1911.
Hopson began with a pen and wash drawing, and the finished bookplate is an etching and aquatint print. Showing a library interior, the bookplate references Phelps’s professional and personal pursuits, including a rendition of the Droueshout portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio as well as a book open to a portrait of Robert Browning, in addition to the comfy armchair in front of the fireplace. Hopson's design later became the basis for the Phelps Memorial bookplate used by Yale University Library.
A prolific engraver and illustrator, Hopson executed over 200 ex-libris in addition to other graphic works during the so-called golden age of American bookplate design (roughly from 1890 to 1925). Hopson lived in New Haven, CT, with his home and studio located at 730 Whitney Avenue, as this business card indicates.
Sometimes an ex-libris seems to express the artist’s own artistic vision rather than the patron’s personality. For example, the English designer and illustrator Pickford Waller (1849-1930) created bookplates mostly for friends and relatives. The example shown here is a bookplate for his daughter, Sybil, and it echoes some of the same stylized organic forms seen in Waller’s sketchbook from 1920.
The patron, however, often has as much creative agency in the bookplate commission as the artist him- or herself. Irene D. Andrews Pace (1892-1962) was such an active participant in her bookplate commissions that she saved trial proofs and final prints, carved woodblocks or plates, any original sketches, and correspondence related to her commissions. Documenting the process allowed her to better understand the scope of the artist’s work and hone her connoisseurship while also monitoring the work in progress.
Of course, having a bookplate of one’s own could be as simple as ordering it from a catalog. A variety of ex-libris were available commercially in the early 20th century. Many individual artists and printing companies advertised their wares in bookplate brochures. Their marketing tactics included appeals to one’s sense of individuality, refined taste, and pride in ownership as well as the practical matter of security.