‘Not a fine or a perfect copy’ (Dibdin). Shakespeare’s First Folio at The Queen’s College, Oxford

In 1793, the Shakespearean scholar and literary satirist George Steevens noted the ‘present enormous price’ of the First Folio, observing that the actor and producer David Garrick only paid £1 16s for his copy ‘about forty years ago’ (just over £200 in today’s money). In the same footnote, Steevens also suggested that following Garrick’s death, this book ‘should have accompanied his collection of old plays to the British Museum; but has been taken out of his library, and has not been heard of since’.

We might agree about the increasingly-enormous present price of a First Folio, but Steevens was proved wrong on the last point. While Garrick bequeathed his collection of ‘English Plays’ to the British Museum, his will also promised the remainder of the collection to his wife and his nephew. And following Mrs Garrick’s death, in 1823 the Folio was included in the sale of her library at Robert Saunder’s ‘Poets’ Gallery’ on Fleet Street (lot 2045), much to the chagrin of the Trustees of the British Museum. Thomas Thorpe, the ‘renowned book-purchasing bibliophilist’ (Dibdin) and Covent Garden bookseller, was particularly active during the sale, acquiring 469 lots. On the ninth day of the sale (2 May 1823), Thorpe purchased ‘SHAKESPEARE’S WORKS, FIRST EDITION’ with a ‘portrait by Droeshout’ for £34 2s. 6d. (around £2,000 in today’s money) Also present at the sale was Thomas Jolley F.S.A., a Covent Garden fruit salesman and potato dealer, who purchased numerous other lots but, it seemed, missed out on the Folio. At some point, Jolley rectified this, and purchased the Folio from Thorpe. Led almost to bankruptcy by his collecting habits, Jolley’s library was dispersed in a series of sales from 1843. Thomas Rodd, another bookseller, acquired it at one of these (10 June 1844; lot 576), for £86 (around £5,200 in today’s money). Thorpe was also present at this sale, but his purchasing firepower was much diminished.

At this point, Rodd was acting as agent for The Queen’s College, Oxford, which was collecting aggressively following the 1841 bequest of £30,000 (an enormous sum in its day) from a former student, Robert Mason, the terms of which required the sum to be spent on the library within three years (the College contested the terms, and the timeframe expanded to a decade). On 29 June 1844, Rodd wrote to the College that, ‘you will find in one of the boxes the first edition of Shakespeare 1623. It is complete with the exception of the leaf of verse opposite the title which is a facsimile done by Harris so admirably that it may be said to defy detection. This if you take it will complete all of your series of the early editions’. The College’s ability to expand its collection, which, as Rodd mentioned, included the later editions of Shakespeare’s Folios, was also hastened by the introduction of modern transport technology: a few weeks before the Folio box arrived from Rodd, the Great Western Railway began to serve Oxford. It is possible that the box containing the Folio arrived in box at the new station by Folly Bridge; certainly, Rodd wrote not long after (3 August 1844) that he had delivered more books to the ‘Railroad office’. But whether or not it arrived by coach or new-fangled locomotive, the College did decide to ‘take it’, and agreed to pay Rodd the sum of £100. With this purchase, the College could claim ownership of all four editions of the Folio.

As an object, the First Folio, now at shelfmark Queen’s Sel.b.204, retains some of the material evidence of these adventures. Most obviously, it contains the plates of two of its earlier owners, Garrick (engraved by John Wood, probably in the 1760s) and Jolley, as well as the more recent Queen’s College bookplate on the inside front boards. Sale numbers can also be found in the endpapers. The book is bound in red goatskin with gold tooling, and it contains the stamp of the noted bookbinders Bedford and Clarke. As well as their quality binding work, the partners were known for their paper repairs, evidence of which is to be found in the Folio. Bedford and Clarke had probably been instructed to undertake these by Rodd, who wrote to the College that he was waiting for the binders to finish with other works; there is evidence of Clarke and Bedford bindings in other works that he sold to the College. These include the College’s Second and Fourth Folios, whose details raise possible questions about the contemporaneity of the First Folio’s binding. Although the design for the binding of these two later Folios is very similar, their goatskin is newer, less smooth, and the tooling is less detailed. The marbling is also different in the later volumes. While it is likely that the First Folio has seen more use at the College, the condition and the detailing suggests that the binding could be predate those of the Second and Fourth Folios, and that was used as a basis for the binding.

Could it be that the binding is earlier, possibly even Garrick’s? Most of Garrick’s books in the British Library have been rebound, thanks to Panizzi, many with DG initials and centrepiece, but there is no other evidence from those books that survive or are described to link the binding. Clearly, the volume has had some considerable work done on it, not least the insertion of the facsimile of Ben Johnson’s verse, as well as repairs and possibly some washing. (The ‘Harris’ mentioned in Rodd’s letter was John Harris, a famed pen-and-ink facsimilist, who was also employed by the British Museum’s Anthony Panizzi to make good imperfect works.) Perhaps, the mostly likely candidate, then, is Thomas Jolley, who is known to have used Robert Riviere, the bookbinder of Huguenot descent, for others of his expansive – and overly-expensive – collection. The Jolley bookplate is placed slightly on top of the Garrick bookplate, and it is likely that he commissioned Harris (since Rodd just mentions the fact, rather than that he had arranged it). A comparison with other Jolley books (and Riviere bindings) would be welcome. Whatever the case, the fine gilt tooling, edging, heavy boards and red goatskin are a testament to the Folio as a book to make a fuss over.

On the Folio’s other travels, the volume is, it seems, silent. It was perhaps with a relative at the time of Garrick’s death; otherwise, it would probably now be in British Library, as his will requested, residing with the majority of his collection of English plays. Intriguingly, Garrick is known to have loaned valuable volumes to Oxford editors, but there is nothing to suggest that what became Sel.b.204 has travelled twice to the county.

Referred to as Lee LXIV or West 34 (from the Shakespeare censuses by Sidney Lee (1902) and Anthony West (2001 & 2003)), a cruder appellation might be attached to it. By pure coincidence, ‘count’ in All’s Well That Ends Well, appears to have been printed using upside-down ‘n’ in its composition, a reminder of the many reversals of type corrected throughout the print run. In Much Ado About Nothing, itself a possible bawdy allusion, the ‘o’ in count has been inked out in two places. We do not know by whom, but it tells us something about its readers. Elsewhere, there are occasional pencil annotations, marking exits, changing or correcting the certain names. Occasional burn holes and what looks to be tobacco stains are present, often over-enthusiastically associated with Garrick. Such marks, the bibliographer Dibdin suggested, stopped it being a fine or perfect copy, along with tears and repairs. Today, such human interventions – along with the association with Garrick – provide much of the interest and excitement about the volume. In 2018, Prof. Emma Smith demonstrated what careful looking can reveal, even in a long-known-about Folio: marks in King Lear reveal a previously unknown corrected proof sheet. Other copies – including round the corner at the Bodleian Library – show that these corrections were made: Queen’s is only the sixth example of a marked-up Folio proof sheet in existence, and the only one in the United Kingdom. An even more recent visit from a scholar noted that a hair from one of the printers can be seen moving its way down the page. Such marks are evidence of production and correction on the fly, helping us to discern a little more about Shakespeare’s words and performances. The marks also attest to how the published text was used. Splodges of ink and other substances, including perhaps tobacco attest not just to messy readers, but also to readers who were interested, perhaps forgetting what they were doing as they engaged with the words, rather than the ‘fine and perfect’ Folio. Some of the readers might be identifiable. There are at least three hands and types of ink, but the reddish ink and pencil perhaps might be linked to Garrick with some confidence. In particular, an addition to As You Like It clarifies that Rosalind is talking to Orlando, suggesting that the ending of the paly is not as clearly straight as it should be ([Rosalind]: Ile haue no Father, if you be not her:/He haue no Huband, if you be not he:/[in ink: Orl] Nor ne’re wed woman, if you be not shee’). A list of actors (that is, the parts) is begun in a loopy pencil on a blank page at the end of Coriolanus, a play that Garrick revived at Drury Lane in 1754. To this material evidence, there is contextual textual evidence, too. We can infer that it was on occasion used by the College’s fellows. Henry Markheim (Fellow, 1871), went directly to the 1623 edition when he needs a text to cite for a lecture at the Taylorian.

Four Folios in one place is, of course, a luxury, but it can also be put to pedagogical and scholarly use. Three impressions of the Droeshout portrait can be examined side by side (only the Third Folio is lacking the print) and students can gain a sense of the continuity, and changes, in size of the Folio. Greater awareness of the wider collection also brings further understanding. It was until recently thought, as Lukas Erne argues, that later seventeenth century collections ‘tend to marginalise Shakespeare’, using Sir Joseph Williamson’s collection in The Queen’s College as one piece of evidence. While the Library thought that this was the case until recently, examination of the 1664 Third Folio clearly identifies it as a Williamson title, with the usual JW initial. No doubt more will be uncovered, perhaps during this anniversary year.

Dr. Matthew Shaw
28th February 2023

Photo of The Queen’s College by By Odicalmuse

Matthew Shaw, Photo by John Cairns

Dr. Matthew Shaw
Librarian, The Queen’s College