University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Edwin Davis French

Volume II  · February 1947  ·  Number 2
Edwin Davis French

A collection of bookplates is really a collection of small prints. Engravings, etchings, linoleum cuts, lithographs, and line cuts are all grist to the collector's mill, and even in a small collection all of these media soon come to be represented. It is natural that a collector soon begins to favor the work of certain artists, and tries to gather in as many of his favorites' works as he can find.

This was the case with the late Miss Maud Motley, whose fine collection of bookplates was presented to the University of Rochester Library by her sister, the late Mrs. Albert B. Eastwood, in the fall of 1939. When the collection was analyzed, it was soon clear that Edwin Davis French (1851-1906) had been one of Miss Motley's favorite artists, and that she had succeeded in bringing together a distinguished group of his highly esteemed bookplates. Certain other examples were found in the Gilchrist Collection, which had previously been given to the Library by Mrs. Donald B. Gilchrist and her son David, as a memorial to our late librarian, Donald Bean Gilchrist. In the years since 1939, still more E. D. French bookplates have been added through the generosity of Mrs. Homer Strong and Mrs. Eastwood, until now the University collections contain approximately 250 of the 300 engravings which French is known to have executed. Edwin Davis French began his artistic career in 1869, when he joined the Whiting Manufacturing Company as a silver engraver. He soon achieved eminence in this field, both as a craftsman and as a designer, During his years in New York City he became a leading figure in the Art Students' League, and later became a founding member and trustee of the American Fine Arts Society.

It was not until 1893 that French engraved his first bookplate: his sister-in-law had begun to form a small collection, and as a joke, French engraved a facetious plate and introduced it secretly into her files. When the hoax was discovered, the lady rightly demanded a serious plate in its stead, and the penitent brother-in-law obliged. Thus began the series of 250 ex libris which French made for American and European collectors, and he soon gave up his silver work to spend all his time on the new-found occupation.

There were two paramount influences in French's work as a bookplate artist. The first, and strongest, was that of Albrecht Durer, whom French admired above all other masters. The other man whose work provided him with the desire for emulation was the great contemporary British engraver, Charles W. Sherborn.

Almost all of French's original designs show the influence of Durer and Sherborn. The handling of masses, with heavy shading putting some portions of the design into deep relief, and the use of etching to add contrast and lightness, are typical technical devices in a French plate. It is natural that his experience in engraving on silver gave French much to carry over into his work with copper. The differences in the two media were marked, however. Where direct engraving, often on curved surfaces, had been called for in his silver work, French found that with bookplates he was working with a different metal, using reverse engraving on a smaller field. His lettering was always perfect, and although to modern tastes some of his designs seem overly ornate and somewhat heavy, the exquisite touch of a master can be discerned in everything he did.

Many of the bookplates which French executed were commissioned by members of the Grolier Club, and consequently his marks of ownership are to be found in some of the finest private collections of America. A plate by French gives even a commonplace volume a definite cachet of bibliographic gentility.

In the University collections there is but one E. D. French bookplate which has a direct local connection -- the charming little water-lily design done for Edith Holden, who is better known to Rochesterians as Mrs. Charles H. Babcock. Through a fortunate purchase, made possible by Mrs. Eastwood's generosity, the library owns the original copper of French's heraldic design for Abraham Goldsmith (No. 110 in the French checklist), and at the same time a large number of signed proofs and trial pulls were added to the Motley Collection.

"A minor art," one may say of the bookplate. Granted that this is so, the beauty of these little works is not to be spurned. In a collection such as that which we now have of French's bookplates, one finds infinite riches in a little room. Much can be learned from a great master of a minor art, and no one can deny the right of Edwin Davis French to classification in this category. As our collection of his work approaches completion, we can better evaluate French's position in his chosen field, and more truly read the great effect he has had on the development of the bookplate and upon engraving as an art in America.