A Bibliophile’s Ex-Libris for 37.000 Books – The Bookplate of Sergey Vavilov with an Engraving of Félix Vallotton

I often find curious things just browsing tomes in old books stores. Here is an excellent example. This bookplate on a vintage book about engraving techniques of the 19th century momentarily attracted my attention. However, I recognized neither the owner’s name nor the artist and had to conduct a little research to find their names.

This is a stunning graphic work. As it appears, masterful use of the negative space is one of the trademarks of the Swiss and French painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton. This particular work is named The Bibliophile. Lamp sheds light on the books, but shades the person’s head. Is it a burglar in a coat or the proud owner of the library in his evening attire?

The other mystery was the signature under the engraving. I was almost sure about the surname, but couldn’t decipher the initials. As it is a Russian collector’s name, there should supposedly have been initials for his name and patronymic name.

Luckily, I found a version of this ex-libris with a straighter type. It gave me the name: S.I.Vavilov. Well, that’s still not a complete dataset to distinguish a person, but the last steps were quite simple. The book once belonged to a Soviet physicist, the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov.

Here, the Soviet Post even had a stamp issued on the 10th anniversary of his death:

Sergey Vavilov was a prominent scientist, brother of the famous Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. But besides that, he was a life-long bibliophile and book collector. Biographers mention that almost every Sunday he went on a tour of old books shops. It seems that Sergey Vavilov adopted this ex-libris in 1947, just a few years before his death. He comments in his diaries that “pasting of the bookplates was commenced 38 years later, or something” — Vallotton’s work was presented in 1911.

I don’t know whether Vavilov and Vallotton have ever communicated between the moment this woodcut was made and the moment of Vallotton’s death in 1925.

By the moment of his death in 1951, Sergey Vavilov’s book collection included ca. 37.000 volumes.

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