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Shakespeare: The secret lives of books

Mareike Doleschal talks about the discoveries, both sad and pleasant ones, that make working with collections of rare and early printed books so rewarding.

One of the main pleasures that I get from working with rare books is the fact that books from the early hand press period have unique features. What I find particularly fascinating is provenance and the different traces previous owners have left inside their former books, such as marginalia, bookplates, shelf marks and armorial stamps. I once came across a pressed bamboo leaf inside a fourth folio, the fourth edition of Shakespeare's collected works, published in 1685.

Writing in books is something librarians frown upon but I doubt the previous owners of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's early printed books would have shared my view. As librarian at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library in Stratford-upon-Avon, I am in charge of a collection of 55,000 books including 3,000 rare and early printed books relating to Shakespeare's life, works and times. The owners of the library collection are the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tasks such as retrospective cataloguing and answering queries have enabled me to discover early printed books' unique features and have led me onto journeys into the books' previous lives.

Questions of provenance

There are two copies of the first folio (published 1623), a second folio (1632) and a fourth folio (1685) in the trust's collection whose provenance I find particularly fascinating, and I often refer to them in talks, stack tours and in my blogs. About three years ago, I researched the provenance of one our first folios for an exhibition. I looked at the catalogue record and learned that the book formerly ­belonged to the 5th Earl of Ashburnham who sold it to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1895. I also found out that the book was washed during the 19th century and had been ­re-bound. This information led me to ask several questions: why did the aristocrat decide to sell his book? What does washing a book involve? And why was it re-bound?

I got my answers from different sources. In a dictionary of English book collectors compiled by the book dealer Bernard Quaritch, I discovered the 5th Earl's reason for selling the book: he had run into financial difficulties and decided to sell his father's library. Regarding the re-binding of the folio, I found out in a book by David Pearson that it was common practice for a Shakespeare folio to be re-bound in the 18th and 19th centuries.1 When the folio was first published, the book wasn't bound at all and the binding wouldn't have been as elaborate as a 19th century one. In the 17th century, books of drama and literature weren't held in as high regard as for example a religious text, which is more likely to be found in a precious binding.

And what does 'washing' a book mean? According to a conservator, washing a book means taking it apart and immersing the pages in water. Unfortunately this practice can remove inscriptions, and whilst I was glad I found more information, I was disappointed to discover that were no inscriptions at all in this particular folio.

The theatre folio

The lack of inscriptions contrasts with another first folio in the trust's collection; I call it the 'theatre folio' because the Royal Shakespeare Company owns it. It is full of inscriptions such as little hands pointing at lines in the text. I frequently talk about this book as part of 'show and tells' and the little hands always get a lot of interest from my audiences. I describe it to them as 'an early form of highlighting.' According to a Shakespeare scholar, whom I supervised while he was studying the marginalia in our folios, these little hands were made in the 18th century. The many inscriptions tell us that this book was very much a working copy and was used for studying ­Shakespeare's work.

In the 19th century, a notorious Shakespeare scholar and book collector called James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps owned this book. He had a highly controversial ­research method: he used to cut up books, not only his own, but also those belonging to libraries and pasted the extracts into his notebooks which are held in the trust's library. His notebooks contain ­numerous extracts from early printed books including those from folios. He's said to have ­destroyed 800 books and made 36,000 scraps. Not surprisingly, he was banned from libraries, including the British ­Museum. However, Halliwell-Phillipps had a redeeming feature, because he donated his books to the trust, most of them are intact apart from a third folio that he took apart and interfiled with his notes. He also removed the Shakespeare portrait from the first folio. This is why I called him the 'Jekyll and Hyde of the book world' in a recent blog which I wrote about his notebooks.2

Intriguing inscriptions

Not all inscriptions are of a scholarly nature, and the drawing of a face inside the gutter of a second folio shows that the owner used it for some simple doodling. An extract from a sales catalogue pasted onto the front board of the folio tells us that the folio formerly belonged to the library of the late Reverend E. K. Evans and was priced at £500 in the 19th century.

shakespeare folio face

Another intriguing inscription can be found inside one of our fourth folios, published in 1685, which is the fourth edition of Shakespeare's collected works. It is different from previous editions as it includes seven plays that were not published before; of these only Pericles is now considered to be written by Shakespeare. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company's inventory, this fourth folio was acquired in 1937 and was transferred to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library in 1948. Among the inscriptions are autographs of previous owners as well as a verse written on the inside of the back board (see above, left). It is a song from Thomas D'Urffey's Cinthia and Endimion: or The loves of the deities published in 1697:

The poor endymion lov'd too well

A Nymph Divinely fair.

Whose Fatal Eyes could hourly kill,

Or worse; could cause Despair.

For she had all her Sexes Pride,

And all their Beauty too:

And every Amorous Swain defy'd,

When e'er they came to wooe.

Intriguingly, the line written after the poem reads: 'I mean L.B.' As the poem is about rejection, this suggests that the person, who copied it, was rejected by L.B. We will never know who L.B. was or the identity of the person who transcribed those lines but this story of unrequited love personalises this fourth folio making it an even more fascinating book.

Painted books

A few years ago while flicking through a 1905 edition of Shakespeare's works; a painting appeared on the fanned edges of the book as if by magic (see below). When I took the book off the shelf, looking for something entirely different, I had no idea that it contained this hidden treasure. I had never seen a work of art painted on the edges of a book before and this discovery made me want to find out about this type of painting which is called a fore-edge painting.

Prior to the 16th century, books were shelved with the fore-edge facing the reader and it was used for identification, so for example the shelf mark would be written on it. The first fore-edge paintings were painted on the outer edge of the pages, making the painting clearly visible when closed. Over time artists discovered how to hide their artwork by fanning the pages and painting on the slight inner edges and then gilding the outside page edges. Thus the painting remains hidden while the book is closed and only revealed when the pages are fanned. Often the painting relates to the contents of the book as is the case of the 1905 edition of Shakespeare's works: the painting is a Stratford scene showing the river Avon in the foreground with the guild chapel in the background. A bookplate pasted inside the front of the book tells us the name of the previous owner: Vera Houliston, student of Poole School was awarded this book as a fourth prize. The school's motto and emblem are embossed on the front cover. It reads Finis opus coronat meaning 'The end [or the result] crowns the work.'

Shakespeare fore edge painting

Poignant discovery

In 2011, one week before Remembrance Day, I catalogued a book entitled In praise of Shakespeare: an English anthology compiled by C. E. Hughes. The book provides a chronological sequence of pieces in verse and prose, which writers in successive periods have written in praise of Shakespeare. Opening the book, I discovered a letter pasted inside the front, which was dated 1 August 1916. The writer is George Tregelles, father of Geoffrey Phillip who died in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. In his letter addressed to one of my predecessors, the librarian at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Library William Salt Brassington, the father writes that his son studied at Cambridge and was ­'enthusiastic of Shakespearian study.'

A few years before his death, while on a bicycle ride, Geoffrey stopped by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Library where the librarian showed him treasures from the collection. According to his father, Geoffrey very much appreciated the library tour which left a lasting impression on his son. It impressed him so much that he left a note saying that he would like his book In Praise of Shakespeare to be donated to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Library. A search on ancestry revealed that Geoffrey was born in 1892, joined the 8th Battalion Devonshire Regiment in 1915 and was only 24 years old when he died. The last two lines of George's letter are the most poignant. He imagines what might have become of his son if he hadn't died: 'My boy had an active, original mind and took a keen interest in literature among other things. Had he lived he might have done some good work in that line.'

These discoveries, sad and pleasant ones, are among the more click here.

References 1 Pearson, D. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800. London: British -Library Oak Knoll Press, 2005. 2 Doleschal, M. The Jekyll and Hyde of the book world: James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps. May 2016.


Published: June 2017

Related content: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Reading Room

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