The Last Bookman's Bookplates

Seven plates, including one that's NSFW

A display of Starrett's bookplates from page 24 of Charles Honce's 1941 bibliography, A Vincent Starrett Library: The Astonishing Result of Twenty-three Years of Literary Activity.

How many bookplates did Vincent Starrett have during his long life? I think I know the answer, but we will do a count together, just to be sure.

The illustration that starts this post is the first place where I can find a collection of Starrett's plates was reprinted. Charles Honce set aside a page in his 1941 bibliography of Starret's work to show off the plates the bookman used. They are, starting from the upper left:

The Open Book

Upper left: The Open Book (which I sometimes call "The Unblinking Eye") by writer, critic and artist Haldane MacFall. Macfall was a writer whom Starrett admired and visited when on a trip to England as a young man. Starrett believed MacFall was a major talent whose work would one day be hailed as some of the most original of the early 1900s. Things didn't turn out that way.

Starrett doesn't say when or how he commissioned MacFall to do a bookplate. Here is where a part of the idea might have come from. MacFall's 1913 book The Splendid Wayfaring, includes his own illustrations. This one on the title page features a flying eye similar to the one in Starrett's bookplate.

Starrett doesn't date these plates, but I get the sense that this might be one of the earliest.

The Smiling Sherlock

Upper right: Perhaps the most famous of all Starrett's bookplates, this one was done by his long-time friend and bookplate artist Fridolf Johnson. There have been a couple of earlier posts about this plate, and you can find out more of its history and impact here and here.

The bookplate has turned up in a number of different settings including the cover and this frontispiece from Walter Klinefelter's booklet, A Packet of Sherlockian Bookplates, published in 1964 by the Private Press of the Indiana Kid, Nappanee, Indiana.

Klinefelter was a good friend of Starrett's and an early Starrett collector.

Too often, when this bookplate is reprinted, Johnson's name fails to be reproduced. That's the case here with this bright red reproduction. That's too bad. The artist deserves to be recognized for his iconic work.

The Preacher on the horse

Lower right: The man on horseback by Gordon Browne.

The British-born Browne was a popular illustrator, especially of children's books, at the turn of the last century. Starrett mentions admiring his work in his memoir, Born in a Bookshop. 

But the name might mean a little more if you are familiar with his father: Hablot Knight Browne, better known as "Phiz," and illustrator of numerous books by Charles Dickens.

As I said, Gordon Browne had a long career and illustrated children's works, in addition to adventure tales for adults.

A bookplate by Crystal Kennedy for Bookfellow Genevieve E. Teuton

The Three Pirates plate by Crystal Kennedy.

The Three Pirates

Lower left: Three pirates by Crystal Kennedy. I've wondered over the years whether these are simply three "typical" pirates, or if they were meant to represent specific sea bandits, like Long John Silver.

The Rrrr-tist (sorry), artist Crystal Kennedy and Starrett were both members of The Bookfellows, a literary organization begun in March 1919 "to bring together in fellowship all the bookly minded people to the end that by their mutual support and encouragement great deeds might be performed."

Starrett enjoyed the company of the Bookfellows, who published some of his early works, like a 1920 book of poetry called Estrays and his 1919 book, In Praise of Stevenson: An Anthology. Their journal, The Step Ladder, also published many early Starrett poems.

Unlike Baker Street Irregulars, who have named investitures, Bookfellows were given numbers based on their order of acceptance. Starrett was No. 5; Crystal Kennedy was 161.

In addition to Starrett's plate, Kennedy created one that Bookfellows could have personalized for their own use. Here's an example of her work for Genevieve E. Teuton, Bookfellow No. 39.

From Peter Ruber's The Last Bookman. In addition to the four plates shown by Honce, Ruber adds, but does not credit, Fridolf Johnson's Dickson's Close plate in the lower left corner.

Civilities in Dickson's Close

When Peter Ruber published The Last Bookman in 1968, he added one more bookplate to the set that Honce had published more than 25 years earlier.

In the lower left of this illustration is the bookplate called Dickson's Close. Ruber seems to have copied the information about the other plates from Honce's book. He doesn't bother to give attribution for the new one he adds, but after a bit of digging, I've been able to track it down.

According to the University of Delaware, Fridolf Johnson, who did the smiling Sherlock plate, also created this earlier bookplate for Starrett, probably dated to 1925.  The plate contains the words: “Civilities in Dickson’s Close. Vincent Starrett. His Book and His Friend." The phrase "His Book and His Friend" certainly captures the relationship Starrett had with his books.

Dickson’s Close was an actual place, an alley off High Street in old Edinburgh. The original image by respected artist William Brassey Hole (a member of the Royal Scottish Academy) comes from a tome called The Book of Old Edinburgh, published in Edinburgh in 1886. Hole's image that was the original for this plate can be found by clicking on this link.

Vincent Starrett was "The Needle," the title he carried with The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic). That seems to be the inspiration for this bookplate by Wallace Smith.

The Needle

I can now add two more bookplates to Ruber's list.

First is this image of a tall, lean man in dressing gown who seems ready to inject himself with a seven-per-cent solution of cocaine from the bottle on the table.

The artist is Wallace Smith, who, with Ben Hecht, found himself the subject of a government case claiming Hecht's book, Fantazius Mallare, was lewd. Smith illustrated the 1922 book, an existential exploration of madness and creativity that included decadent drawings that were apparently too much for the censors of the time. After some legal wrangling over the space of two years that raised serious free speech issues, Hecht and Smith were fined $1,000 each, not a small sum in 1924. (Jerry D. Meyer has a nice summary of the case in an issue of the Caxtonian for April 2010 if you would like to learn more.)

You can judge for yourself the nature of Smith's illustrations by clicking the Wikipedia link. Several of the offending drawings are reproduced there. My, how times have changed.

Just who is the subject of Smith's drawing, Starrett or Holmes?  Michael Murphy, whose explanation for these bookplates was sold with each packet, says it's Starrett, whose title was "The Needle" in The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic), the Chicago Holmes group he helped found.

Well, maybe. Starrett had a prominent nose and was long and lean. But he also had a full head of hair in almost a pompadour style through middle age, lacked a stoop until very late in his life and preferred cigars to a pipe. No, I have to disagree.

Murphy used this plate as the cover image for Conferment by Needle, which holds the brief correspondence between Starrett and T.S. Eliot. Starrett offers to confer upon Eliot membership in the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic).

I think this is much more likely a representation of the Sherlock Holmes we meet at the opening of The Sign of the Four. If you agree, than you would also agree that Smith's depiction of Holmes could not be more different than the smiling fellow in the deerstalker that Fridolf Johnson had created.

Smith's Holmes is burdened by his addiction and ennui. His head bowed, he stands round-shouldered and solemn. The belt on his robe, cinched high and tight across his chest, seems more a torture device than a mere item of apparel.

Even his slippers appear in a state that might make Watson want to toss them out and buy a new pair.

Regardless of who the subject is, it's a melancholy bookplate, full of introspection and a sense of personal entrapment. Hardly the kind of thing I would want in my books.

It's also not a plate that you commonly find in Starrett books for sale. In fact, I have a book with every one of the five plates above and have not found one for sale that has Smith's plate in it, which makes me wonder how many were made and how often Starrett actually used it.

But if this one is rare, at least Murphy made it familiar by using it for the little 1980 booklet, Conferment by Needle.

That's more than can be said about the extremely rare bookplate that follows.

WARNING: NSFW image follows.

And here is where I must do something that happens rarely in Starrettian studies. The next bookplate shows female nudity and some might be offended. So if that's a problem for you, jump away now to a more amusing topic.

Ahem. Well. Yes. A bookplate. Indeed. The artist was Crystal Kennedy and uh, where was I? Is anyone else getting warm in here?

The Preacher and the Prostitute

Once again we have the artwork of Bookfellow No. 161, Carolyn Kennedy. But this is no playful look at literary pirates. No indeed.

The image here shows a fellow in perhaps late Victorian or early Edwardian garb, with a large bumbershoot and an even more outsized tome in his left arm. One wonders how such a thin fellow manages to hold what must be a very heavy volume and umbrella with only one arm, while gesturing with the right. He seems to be lecturing the young lady in front of him.

The young lady is attired in a see-through negligee, thigh-high boots and a bracelet on each wrist. I wonder if her hair style could give us a better sense of the era that is supposed to be taking place here.

And what's that circular object over her right shoulder?  A balloon?

Whatever the fellow is telling her, she doesn't look pleased to hear it. I have the feeling he's admonishing her, perhaps using the words in that big book to let her know the consequences of being dressed as she is.

Can anyone give me a good translation of "Livres Galantes"? It seems to be a reference to French pornography or prostitution. That would make sense if the fellow is seen as religious figure, the large book is a Bible and the lady is a lady of the evening. It still doesn't explain the balloon.

(If you have an explanation that's more likely than this one, let me suggest you role on over to the Studies in Starrett Facebook page where we will no doubt be talking about this and many other things. You can also contact me directly at

I was fortunate to buy this packet of bookplates as part of a larger purchase from a Irish books dealer. The original packet was sold by Michael Murphy in 1972 to raise money for Vincent Starrett, who was ill and had no savings. This packet is supposedly one of 12. Here's the card that went with each of those packets.