Bookplate or Seal for Attleboro Public Library, 1912

Public Library, Attleboro, Massachusetts.

Allen grew up in Attleboro, the town where a well-known and highly respected bookplate engraver, Edwin Davis French (1851-1906), lived and worked. During his lifetime, French produced over 330 complex and artistic engravings, cut short by Tuberculosis at age 55. Attleboro was a jewelry and silverware manufacturing town, so there was ample opportunity for engraving silver objects, but his gift in fine art brought him to “art engraving” instead. French’s work was inspired by that of the German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Durer, famed for his engravings, woodcuts and printmaking. Allen learned both skills right there in his home town.

Art Engraving and the simpler art of carving letters in metal or glass are separate arts. Art engraving is used to make prints on paper rather than the final product being the metal object itself. Producing two-dimensional illustrations translates into the skills needed to sculpt in low relief, the art form used to create seals, medallions, coins, portraits reliefs and architectural decoration.

Allen was well qualified for this commission to design and execute either a Bookplate (engraving) or a Seal (bas-relief) for the Attleboro Public Library. He had already been trained in basic engraving, and also in hub cutting and die sinking in the Attleboro jewelry factories. Like the cameo art of carving in shell, hub cutting was sculpting low relief designs in steel. He was also training as an artist and sculptor at RISD and the SMFA.

Allen had taken time off from his sculpture studies specifically to train at the Art Engraving Co. for the summer of 1909. To help finance his education, he continued to work for them at least into Autumn. Designing a bookplate, an emblem with design elements and lettering on a paper Ex-Libris label, would be something he could have done there as it would have been the kind of work a copper plate art engraver would be trained do.

The art of sculpting in relief as a fine art was one of the skills he learned at the SMFA under Bela Pratt, a student of St. Gaudens who had begun his sculpture career carving cameos in shell. Both elder artists were known for their numismatic work designing coins, and for their bas-relief portrait and architectural sculpture. Bela Pratt was famous for the gold coins commissioned by Roosevelt using the same intaglio technique that would be used to make a seal. From his training, Allen had developed the skills not only of a bas-relief sculptor, but also those of an engraver.

Because of these qualifications and the fact that he had already sculpted a war memorial for the DAR that was placed in the town’s Capron Park, Allen was asked by Attleboro’s Dr. Holden to take on this project. Holden was a library supporter and trustee and had taken an interest in the young local artist.

In June, he saw a man named “Finnigan about relief.” He also talks at the time about a Library Seal. There is no separate commission noted for a Library Seal or Relief and in the end he called the job a “bookplate,” so it is unclear whether there were two jobs or one. A relief and a seal could be the same because both are sculpted to make an impression either into a softer material from the front or to emboss a raised impression from the back. A bookplate refers only to a printed sticker or label placed inside a book to indicate ownership.

He didn’t start on the “Library Seal” until September 9th. Having taken time off for a much-needed surgery and for recovery, he was finally able to work on the seal. The work went quickly. He spent four days on it and seems to have finished it because he relates that he visited Agnes and took the library seal to show her. She “liked it much.”

The library staff looked everywhere for evidence of a seal or bookplate, but was unable to discover any clues. The librarian suggested that most of the books from that era had been discarded and with them any bookplate that might have been inside, so there is no image to show or other information available. He did note that in the end he was paid “$50 instead of $35 for book plate.” They must have been pleased with the results.

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