What do a giant squirrel and a he-man wearing a leafy loin cloth and a laurel wreath have in common? Emblematic bookplates like the one shown to the left (Penn Libraries: IC55 T1856 En802s) present the provenance researcher with such peculiar questions.
Many bookplate designs are related to symbolic traditions associated with heraldry and other emblematic devices that a family or an individual used to create their own unique marks. Animals and human figures from mythology or literature are often incorporated into such devices. For example, the squirrel can be a symbol of diligence, and careful planning because of its hard work and foresight in gathering and storing its nuts for the winter. The scantily clad strong man inside the shield may be meant to represent the classic Greek hero, Hercules.
Indeed, a pair of remarkably similar men appear on either side of a heraldic crest in the bookplate shown to the right (Penn Libraries: EC65 M8843 682s). In this case they are almost certainly depictions of Hercules with his trademark weapon of choice, his olive-wood club. Possibly our mystery plate is meant to depict him about to uproot a handy tree in order to make his club.
The double Hercules bookplate has been identified by POP contributor and Princeton provenance blogger, Stephen Ferguson, as belonging to one of the lords Torphichen, citing this more crudely represented example of the bookplate of Walter Sandilands, 8th Lord Torphichen (1707–1765). In this case there are many clues that could help identify the owner. It presents all the components of what is known as an heraldic achievement. An achievement consists of a shield bearing the person’s coat of arms flanked by two supporters (in this case the two Hercules figures with their clubs), a helmet sitting atop a coronet (here denoting the rank of baron), and finally a mantling (the flourishing material around the helmet), crest (the eagle at the top), and motto (“spero meliora”) to top things off. All of these heraldic symbols, together with the signature reading “Torphichen” at the bottom of the plate, provide many indications as to who may have once owned this book. However, the more enigmatic squirrel and strong man plate provide no motto, name, or coat of arms for the would be provenance detective to trace, only the mystery of what the juxtaposition of these two symbols are trying to communicate to us across the centuries.
Do you have any ideas about who the mystery squirrel and bodybuilder bookplate belonged to? Share your thoughts in the comments for this image on the POP flickr feed here.