Friday 8 February 2013

Alphonse Labitte (1853- )

I occasionally encounter catalogue descriptions which mention an anonymous bookplate, variously described by different cataloguers, but recognisable from its device/motto on the scroll below the shield "EXCELSIOR":
Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, John Work Garrett Library, Gar 6
Another example is in Holland at 's-Heerenberg, Kastel Huis Bergh, Inv. no. 224 (Ms. 59):

A third (present whereabouts unknown) was photographed in a private collection in 2007:

de Ricci records the bookplate occurring in:
  • Cleveland Public Library (de Ricci, p.1934 no. 6)
  • Feiss collection, Cleveland Heights (de Ricci, p.1950 no. 7)
  • Philadelphia, Free Library:
    • Lewis E 39 (de Ricci, p. 2027 no.10)
    • [shelfmark unknown] (de Ricci p.2033 no.51)
    • Lewis E 87 (de Ricci, p.2041 no.93)
    • Lewis E 113 (de Ricci, p.2040 no.89)
    • Lewis E 127 (de Ricci, p.2040 no.91)
Digital Scriptorium records examples at:
  • Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, John Work Garrett Library, Gar 18
  • Lawrence, University of Kansas, Kenneth Spencer Research Library,  MS A17
  • New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library,  Plimpton MS 72
  • Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, Special Collections,  MS. 42
The bookplate was identified by Seymour de Ricci in his Census volumes as belonging to Alphonse Labitte. A very strong clue in favour of this identification is Alphonse Labitte, Traité élémentaire du blason (Paris, 1893; available online), in which the device from the bookplate is illustrated as figure 501:

Alphonse Labitte was editor of  L'Enlumineur: journal d'enseignement, et de propagation de l'art, de l'enluminure, de la miniature et de la calligraphie, whose first issue appeared in February 1889. 

A year later, in 1890, he founded the Société des Miniaturistes et Enlumineurs de France. He went on to write Les manuscrits et l'art de les orner (Paris, 1893), L'Art de l'enluminure: métier - histoire - pratique (Paris, [1893]; available online), and was the founder-editor of Le Manuscrit: Revue spéciale de documents-manuscrits, livres, chartes, autographes, etc. concernant leur curiosité historique, artistique, bibliographique, etc. donnant la description et la représentation de ces documents et traitant de toutes les questions qui s'y rattachent, which lasted for just two years, 1894-95.

Beyond these medieval manuscripts-related publications, I have not been able to find out much about him, except that he was son of the Paris bookseller and publisher Adolphe Labitte (1832-1882), from whom he inherited the position as Libraire of the Bibliothèque nationale, at 4, rue du Lille. The image below is derived from an 1890 biographical note of a poet called Alphonse Labitte  (available online through Gallica). Because it was an unusual name, it is perhaps possible that he is the same man as our manuscripts specialist, who would have been about 37 years old when this portrait was published.

EDIT (10/2/13): 
  • I notice that in the BnF Catalogue générale, the poet and the publisher of books about illumination both have Paris and 1853 as the place and year of birth.
  • Erik Drigsdahl points out that it is entirely natural for a writer to invent heraldry whose main charge is an arm holding a quill pen.
  • There is some discussion of Labitte in Sandra Hindman, Michael Camille, et al., Manuscript Illumination in the Modern Age: Recovery and Reconstruction (Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston IL, 2001), although his forename is wrongly given as Albert.
Web searches produce the following further examples of manuscripts with the bookplate:
The British Library records the bookplate using proper heraldic terminology in a manuscript later owned by William Morris (Additional MS. 38644): "azure, a dexter arm embowed and vambraced holding a pen argent, in the dexter chief a star or, with the motto Excelsior"

EDIT (7/3/13):
M. Dominique Stutzmann, Chargé de recherche at the IRHT, has kindly contacted me to say that the "EXCELSIOR" bookplate also occurs in the following manuscripts at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz:
  • Ms. lat. quart. 498
  • Ms. theol. lat. quart. 305
  • Ms. theol. lat. oct. 150
  • Hdschr. 289

The first three acquired in 1895 in Munich, all with pencil notes with the name of Theodor Sonner; the fourth acquired in 1988. See Dominique Stutzmann and Piotr Tylus, Les manuscrits médiévaux français et occitans de la Preußische Staatsbibliothek et de la Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Kataloge der Handschriftenabteilung. 1. Handschriften 5 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007); available online.

EDIT 24 Dec. 2013
Looking through old images I found that I had photographed another example in a private collection in Princeton, NJ, in 2007:

Edit 13 Feb. 2016
And here is one in a manuscript formerly in the Ritman Library, Amsterdam, sold at Sotheby's in 2001:

Edit, 9 September 2016:
More more example, at the Free Library, not noted by de Ricci, is in Lewis E 191:

Edit, 24 November 2017:
One more example has been kindly brought to my attention by Colin Higgins, Librarian of St Catharine's College, Cambridge. The entire MS is digitised, and the bookplate is here.

Edit, 26 July 2021:
Here are the three manuscirpts referred to in the anonymous comment below:
Paris, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de santé - Pharmacie, MS 1
Paris, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de santé - Pharmacie, MS 2
Paris, BnF, MS NAL 917

Others are:
Paris, BnF, MS NAL 883 (described by Leroquais, Breviaires)
Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Ms.Mas 0011
Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Institut national d'histoire de l'art, MS 64 
(Labitte is not identified by name, but his bookplate is described: "Ex-libris gravé aux armes d'azur à l'étoile d'or en chef à senestre, au dextrochère armé tennant une plume avec devise "Excelsior".")


  1. Here are more manuscripts owned by Alphonse Labitte:
    Paris, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de santé - Pôle Pharmacie Biologie Cosmétologie, MS 1:
    MS 2:
    Paris, BnF, MS nouv. acqu. lat. 917 (Bibliotheque de l'Ecole des Chartes 70 [1909] p.15)

  2. Hello, here is another manuscript with Alphonse Labitte's bookplate: Munich, BSB, Clm 28609 (,1)
    It was sold to BSB by the Jacques Rosenthal firm around 1950 and was formerly included in Jacques Rosenthal's catalogue 83, no. 41 (1925).

  3. Thank you, anonymous commenter!



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