Though described at some length by Edmund King, endpapers have rarely been the subject of detailed analysis. Their significance is both functional and symbolic, practical and invested with cultural value. Positioned at the front and rear of the book, and sub-divided into the free papers and pastedowns, endpapers have a purely functional role to connect the binding with the text-block and contribute to the volume’s strength as a physical unit. Often blank, a space between the outer and inner surfaces, they act to protect the text block from the effects of damp air, usually effectively. Every connoisseur of Victorian books will be familiar with the booksellers’ description of a volume with ‘foxed eps’ – though it is usually the case that the damp, creating the orange-yellow spots known as ‘foxing’, has been absorbed and contained by these ‘epitexts’ and has not penetrated as far as the frontispiece or title. However, the endpapers’ ‘privileged position’ (Duran and Bosch, 42) also means they were used as the site of additional information.

Left: Endpapers for Thomas Love Peacock’s . Melincourt by A. A. Turbayne. Right: Endpapers for his Poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The front free endpaper and pastedown are usually blank; decorated, in colours such as light and dark browns, black, blues, or simply white, they are often the place in which the relationship between the book and its owner was registered. In cheap editions of literature, the front pastedown was sometimes enriched by a printed certificate when the publication was given to a child as a prize; cards and labels bearing the name of adult recipients similarly identify the book as a gift presented by members of the family. Each of these is a telling sign of provenance which reveals layers of cultural value.

Interesting too is the way in which endpapers changed over time. Though blank for the great part of the century, in the last thirty years or so it was commonplace for them to be decorated, printed in colour, or embellished with patterns – a development which discouraged the application of personal touches but enhanced the books’ visual appeal. These changes were enacted within the nexus of developments in decorative art and closely reflect the rise of the competing styles of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.

A wide range of Aesthetic Movement bookplates featuring women in neo-medieval costume.

Important contributions to this change took place in the later ’60s and ’70s. The most influential proponent of decorative endpapers was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an artist whose book-art revolutionized bindings and illustrations. For his Poems (1870), Rossetti designed end-papers in the form of elegant lattice-work pattern, embellished with simplified flowers and printed in subtle blues. These papers functioned in a number of ways, re-focusing emphasis on the text and its meanings while discouraging displays of ownership. More especially, Rossetti conceived the endpapers as part of visual scheme: the pattern links to the binding, which is decorated in foliate panels of similar devices, and taken together the floral display is an outward sign, prefiguring the nature imagery featuring in the poems, especially in the sonnets of ‘The House of Life’. The overall effect is one of harmonious unification, linking the book’s material and textual content; elegant and refined in the manner of Aestheticism, it establishes a template for the ‘book beautiful’ of the eighties and nineties, and influenced later practitioners such as Selwyn Image and Charles Ricketts.

A wide range of bookplates inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The notion of the organic book was notably developed by the Arts and Crafts designer Walter Crane, and by A. A. Turbayne, a book binding artist associated with Art Nouveau. Each of these embellished publications emulates Rossetti’s example by linking the outside of the book with the inside, fusing the binding and its printed contents.

Left: Two bookplates by Gleeson White. Right: one by Walter Crane. [Click on images to enlarge them and to obtain additional information.]

Turbayne’s striking designs for Macmillan’s popular classics exemplifies this process. His work for Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt (1896) extends Rossetti’s strategy by using the same composition, of a peacock with a swirling tail, for the binding and the endpapers. The same brass die would have been used to create these effects, printing it firstly in gold on the front cover and then in yellow on the opening and closing pages. The effect is one of flamboyant extravagance, the very epitome of super-refined beauty and the pursuit of elegance.

Endpapers designed by Walter Crane for Theo Marzials’s Pan Pipes. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Visual unities are similarly explored by Walter Crane, whose books for children are composed of an integrated casing, endpapers, title pages, frontispieces, and illustrations. Each is linked visually to create a seamless flow from the outer surfaces to the interior texts.

Crane’s approach to Theo Marzials’s Pan Pipes typifies his strategies. The front and end-papers of this book are part of an extended narrative which highlights both narrative and tone. The book’s ambience is established on the front cover in the form of classical figures (Pan shown twice, and a putti) a crane (the artist’s moniker), and flowing flowers and reeds. These are continued on the pastedown and on the recto of the front free end-paper; Crane thereafter arranges three more endpapers. Stripped of the decorative motif of the first two leaves, these pages are austere spaces occupied by linear designs which link back to the front cover. The first is a half-title, embellished with pan-pipes hanging from a strand of the type of reed introduced earlier; the second shows Pan cutting a stem and the third has a pattern of grasses and fishes. The final two repeat the crane, which flies forward with a piece of reed in its beak. Crane thus figures the crane as a recurring motif, encouraging us to follow it, as it were, on its journey from outer to inner. Combining classical suggestions of lyricism and reeds (a constituent of pan-pipes), he uses the endpapers as an elegant montage, enticing the reader to ‘enter’ the book as if progressing through a portal as we arrived at the pictorial frontispiece, title, and finally the text itself. The journey out again, as it were, is carried in the rear end-papers, which show Pan walking off with the pipes.

Endpapers designed by Walter Crane for Theo Marzials’s Pan Pipes. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Prize certificates

Prize certificates are common in the period after 1870, when the Education Act established full-time and compulsory schooling. They were also attached to prizes given to apprentices engaged in trade and professional training. A good example appears the pastedown of Robert Steele’s translation of Renaud of Montauban (1898). Issued by the Sheffield School Board on behalf of Pye Bank School – built in 1875 and still operating as a primary school – it celebrates the punctuality of William W. Coe and is signed by the headmaster. A label of 1866 also appears on the front pastedown of Longfellow’s Evangelinein celebration of the achievements of an industrious student, a David W. Webster, who displayed excellence in ‘Mechanical Drawing’. These documents, bearing the filled-in name of an institution and details of the award, are a commonplace showing of how educationalists working within a state-operated system tried to reward and motivate their students.

In so doing they emulated a practice earlier established by the many private or fee-paying schools, which give more examples of what was valued. Certificates for punctuality, good uniform, behaviour and extra-curricular service to the school are celebrated, apparently with no distinction of relative worth, along with rewards for academic excellence. A prize given at a fee-paying school owned by Mr Oliphant in Edinburgh celebrates the achievement of ‘Miss Emily Husetable’ for her work in ‘Drawing Class … Senior Landscape’, and dated July 1877. Fixed on the front pastedown of a Nimmo imprint, Roses and Holly (1874), this is the sort of award given out by ‘finishing schools’ for young middle-class ladies – enabling them to gain the level of competence enjoyed by Laura Fairlie in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860). Oliphant’s was a well-known school and many of its labels have survived.

Three book prize plates from the following schools: Left: Mr Oliphant’s School, Edinburgh, 1877. Middle: Pye Bank Boys’ School, Sheffield. Right: George Watson’s College for Young Ladies, Edinburgh, n.d.. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Often dismissed as excrescences by modern booksellers, these certificates reveal a great deal about the books’ position within the culture that produced them. Usually attached to editions of poetry or classical as opposed to contemporary fiction, they indicate the late Victorians’ belief in the significance of literature as a mode of leisurely improvement which builds on the students’ educational excellence and promotes the development of a refined mind; though directed at individuals, the giving of prizes, enshrined in the labels, is a telling sign of the Victorians’ emphasis on the attainment of ‘culture’. At the same time, it is noticeable that none of the prizes was very expensive – Nimmo’s, a cheap imprint, was a favourite publisher, offering gift-books priced between 5 and 10 shillings, and it is unusual for a quarto-sized gift-book costing a guinea (21 shillings and sixpence) to contain a school certificate. Clearly the schools wanted to acknowledge their students’ abilities, but kept close control on cost.


Four bookplates employing heraldic devices.

Victorian book-plates are similarly the index of values, this time revealing attitudes to possession; conceived as expressions of individuality, they convert a mass-produced object into a personalized artefact. As emblematic designs in the manner of heraldry, they proclaim the (middle-class) owner’s personality and assert the book’s importance as a treasured possession. Charles Ricketts produced several such plates as expressions of a bibliophile’s character and interests, notably for the art-critic and designer Gleeson White, and White in turn created elegant and sophisticatedex-libris designs for his friends and members of his family. Book-plates were also used to assert the owner’s cultural capital, a mode of ownership which is particularly Victorian and always finds expression in its emphasis on display. Indeed, many Victorian book-plates are extravagant and excessive – a sign of personality intend to impress others.

At the same time, some embellishments are purely private. These, again, are tokens of giving – from a husband to his wife, from one lover to another, from a parent to a child. Often brightly coloured or intricately cut in the manner of fine lace, these touching items assert the continuing currency of books as gifts. One of my favourites is a small doily attached to the front pastedown of a Welsh translation of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, published in Wrexham in the early 1860s. In the centre of the label is a poem, proclaiming in its final lines its role to ‘guard and shield/Thee from all care’: Victorian sentimentality. But most revealing is the inscription in tiny script written above and below: ‘To/Mr Hugh Hughes of Trefiw’ (a town in South Wales) and ‘With the love of his son-in-law, 21 June 1863’. For modern viewers the sentiment seems mawkish – who would address his father-in-law like this in modern Britain? – but for mid-Victorians the giving of a book, with modifications to suit the recipient, and with an apparently sincere inscription, was part of social practice.

Left: An ornamental label celebrating New Year’s Eve. Right: A bookplate to celebrate a birthday. [Click on images to enlarge them and to obtain additional information.]

The front end-papers thus provide a map of attitudes to books, orientating them within a culture that extolled prize-giving and valued the notion of a highly personalized ownership. The material nature of the publication epitomizes these values and adds a very human dimension to our understandings. Of course, the blankness of these pages, usually in simple white or cream, facilitated the writing of inscriptions and the applications of labels and forms another example of the Victorian tendency to fill space wherever it exists. Many books which do not have labels have hand-written inscriptions as well. On the other hand, the final end-papers were routinely occupied with advertisements for new imprints. These are sometimes lists, but in gift-books of the 1860s, especially, it was commonplace to include details of reviews while specifying the contributors (writers, illustrators, engravers and binding designers) to a particular book.

Aesthetic Movement and Beardsleyesque bookplates, from the grim to the light-hearted.

Put together, the front and rear endpapers exemplify the two polarities of Victorian books: the front symbolizes the intense emphasis on personalization while the rear reminds us of the commercial context in which those publications were produced and consumed. Public utterance and private engagement are intermingled, creating a paradoxical effect: if the presence of publicity material makes it impossible to lose sight of the dominance of mass-production and marketing, the owning of the books, symbolized by certificates and book-plates, asserts an individuality that goes well beyond mere consumerism. Within the limits of a few pages the books express the enduring relationship between buyers and makers within a capitalist system.

Works Cited: Primary

Bunyan, John. Taith Y Pererin [The Pilgrim’s Progress]. Illustrated by J. D. Watson. Wrexham: Hughes & Son [1864].

Collins,Wilkie, No Name. With a frontispiece by J. E. Millais. London: Sampson & Low, 1864.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Illustrated by F. A. Fraser. London: Chatto & Windus, 1875.

Crane, Walter. The Baby’s Bouquet. Engraved in colour by Edmund Evans. London: George Routledge, 1878.

Longfellow, H. W. Evangeline. London: Bell & Daldy, 1866.

Marzials Theo. Pan Pipes. London: George Routledge & Sons, 2nd edition, 1883.

Peacock, Thomas Love. Melincourt. London: Macmillan, 1896.

Roses and Holly. London: Nimmo, 1874.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market. London: Macmillan, 1862.

Rossetti, Christina. The Prince's Progress and Other Poems. London: Macmillan & Co., 1866.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Poems. London: Ellis & Elvey, 1870.

Works Cited: Secondary

Duran, Teresa and Bosch, Emma. ‘Before and After the Picture-Book Frame: a Typology of Endpapers.’ Picture-Books: Beyond the Borders of Art, Narrative and Culture. Ed. Evelyn Arizpe. London: Routledge, 2013. 42–63.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880. London, 2003.

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth & Lisa Surridge, eds. ‘Object Lessons: The Victorians and the Material Text.’ Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 84 (Automne 2016).

Moylan, Michele. ‘Introduction’. Reading Books. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. 1–16.

Last modified 9 July 2019