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William Shakespeare, A Man for All Markets: The First Folio and Shakespeareana in 1923


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By Laura Cleaver and Danielle Magnusson, Institute of English Studies

The three-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays was celebrated in London in 1923 with exhibitions at the British Museum and Stationers’ Hall.

Shakespeare and Shakespearana

It also inspired British booksellers including Maggs Bros. and Messrs. Ellis to produce sale catalogues of plays by Shakespeare and a wide range of material associated with the playwright, known as Shakespeareana. The Maggs catalogue included over a thousand items, ranging in price from a few shillings to £2,850 (over £140,000 in today’s money). The catalogue aimed to appeal to established collectors, but its varied content and prices also provided entry routes for new clients seeking to become collectors. Shakespeare’s long-established status as a cultural icon was exploited to sell copies of his works printed from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, but also books about his plays, poetry and sources; contemporary drama; later performances and performers of the plays; and objects and documents connected with the Bard. The activities of dealers, as well as collectors, helped to reinforce the cultural importance of Shakespeare and shaped the collections in which we encounter books today.

The combined efforts of dealers and collectors resulted in rising auction prices. In May 1922 a First Folio from the collection of Baroness Burdett-Coutts set a new auction record of £8,600. This book, together with a second copy sold at the same auction for £5,400, was bought by the American dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach for the oil executive Henry Clay Folger. In addition to the two First Folios, at that sale Folger bought a Fourth Folio, an assortment of eighteenth-century drawings, engravings and playbills associated with the actor David Garrick, an epitaph for the artist William Hogarth written by Garrick, an eighteenth-century set of Shakespeare’s works, and two Shakespeare-themed caskets. One of the caskets was made from ‘Herne’s oak’ (featured in The Merry Wives of Windsor) and was carved with a portrait of Shakespeare. It had been made to house a First Folio and a silver plate in the casket recorded that:

“The old tree fell down in 1863, a portion being most graciously given by Her Majesty Queen Victoria to Miss Burdett Coutts for the purpose of enclosing volumes which are not for an age but for all time.”

The success of the Burdett-Coutts sale probably encouraged the creation of the Maggs catalogue the following year, which offered a similar range of material, including (for £52.10s) Shakespeare’s “death mask” (made from the bust of Shakespeare in the church at Stratford-upon-Avon) and a cast of Garrick’s death mask (£25). The description of Shakespeare’s death mask noted that it was referred to in a Wilkie Collins’ novel, underlining the extent to which Shakespeare had become a cultural icon, entwined with English history, landscape and culture.

Across the Atlantic, American collectors had long been interested in Shakespeare, and these commercial developments only sped up the pace of American buying campaigns.  One collector in particular, Henry Folger, famously underpinned the market for Shakespeare folios in the early twentieth century. Between 1906 and 1929 he sent bids to the London bookseller Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for 28 of 52 auction sales of First Folios. In addition, he bought at least 16 copies from Quaritch and other dealers (including the two purchased through Rosenbach in 1922), and at least 84 per cent of the First Folios auctioned in London in this period are now in the Folger Library in Washington DC. 

Folger’s obsession gave dealers confidence that they could always find a buyer for First Folios and helped keep the market buoyant. However, most collectors only wanted one First Folio, often to make up a set of the four Shakespeare folios published in 1623, 1632, 1663/4 and 1685. Having obtained these, some collectors followed Folger’s example in buying other early drama, including individual plays by Shakespeare, published in smaller ‘quarto’ format, and works by his contemporaries. These books survived in much smaller numbers than the folios, and by the 1920s commanded high prices. The most expensive item in Maggs’ 1923 catalogue was a copy of a version of the story of King Lear, published in 1605, but not written by Shakespeare, for which they asked £2,850. Folger was regularly outbid for such books by other American collectors including William Augustus White and Henry Huntington, which may have encouraged him to expand his collection to include cheaper items of Shakespeareana. 

The 1923 Maggs catalogue did not include a complete First Folio. Instead, it offered ten plays ‘extracted from a genuine copy for the First Folio’ for £63 each or £125 for The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well that Ends Well together. If these were the remains of a First Folio that Maggs had bought at auction for £200 in 1922 then the company could have made a substantial profit. However, this sales tactic also made the First Folio accessible (at least in part) to collectors with more limited resources. 

Maggs’ catalogue also catered for clients with varying perspectives on Shakespeare. In addition to offering translations of Shakespeare’s works in sixteen languages, a section on ‘The Bacon-Shakespeare Question’ provided books for those who interested in the idea that Shakespeare’s plays had, in fact, been written by Sir Francis Bacon. Among the proponents of that theory was Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, whose First Folio is now in Senate House Library, and whose book Bacon is Shakespeare could be purchased from Maggs for six shillings.

However, a much longer section of Maggs’ catalogue was dedicated to ‘Autograph Letters and Documents by or illustrating Shakespeare’s Patrons, Friends and Contemporaries’. Many of these had only a tenuous connection to Shakespeare. The catalogue entry for a letter from Queen Anne of Denmark (wife of James I), was justified on the basis that the Shakespeare scholar Sir Sidney Lee had suggested that Shakespeare might have cut negative references to Denmark from Hamlet to avoid offending the queen, although the letter itself made no mention of Shakespeare or drama. Other documents were linked to Shakespeare at several removes, including letters of Sir Francis Walsingham, one of which mentioned ‘Will, my Lord of Lester’s jesting plaier’ interpreted as Shakespeare’s fellow actor Will Kemp. In this context Shakespeare was made central not only to English drama of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but to the society and politics of a broadly defined era.

As had long been the case for British and American collectors, material that could be linked to the historical person of William Shakespeare of Stratford continued to be in high demand. Objects supposedly made from a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in his garden in Stratford regularly appeared on the market. These included a goblet carved with Shakespeare’s portrait, offered by the dealer Charles J. Sawyer for £110 in 1937. Similarly, Henry Huntington owned a bookcase made with pieces of wood taken from sites associated with Shakespeare. Indeed, part of the appeal of the First Folio, as opposed to the later folios that contained more plays (and in the case of the Third Folio survived in fewer copies), was its production by people who had known Shakespeare.

The preface to Maggs’ catalogue acknowledged the cataloguer’s debt to recent scholarship, including the work of Sir Sidney Lee and the American scholar Henrietta Bartlett. Lee’s census of Shakespeare folios, published in 1902, and Bartlett and Alfred Pollard’s Census of Shakespeare’s Plays in Quarto (1916) had also, inadvertently, helped collectors like Folger by identifying copies of Shakespeare’s works in private collections that might come onto the market or be bought privately, often with the assistance of a bookseller.

Yet the relationship between the book trade and scholarship was not simply in one direction. Dealers provided access to books in their stock, but also carefully curated sales and catalogues, as well as recommending particular books to clients. In 1919, assessing the sale catalogue for part of the Britwell Court library, one of Quaritch’s staff noted that the selection seemed to have been ‘picked out for Mr. Huntington’s special benefit, as with extremely few exceptions, there is not a book which Mr. Huntington already possesses’. Inclusion in the library of a famous collector could raise the status of a book, and some, though not all collectors, sponsored new scholarship on their libraries. 

The three-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the First Folio coincided with a peak of collecting enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Shakespeareana, driven in large part by American collectors. It is unsurprising that dealers, including Maggs, sought to exploit this moment to sell a wide range of books and objects. The activities of dealers and collectors reinforced the idea that Shakespeare was central to English drama, history and culture. Prices for the rarest books and for First Folios soared. As these items left the market, some finding long-term homes in collections including the Folger and Huntington libraries, dealers used the term “Shakespeareana” flexibly to continue to tempt elite collectors to buy more and to encourage new collectors into the market. By the early twentieth century scholarship on Shakespeare and early modern England, together with the survival of a wide range of books and objects inspired by the bard, meant that Shakespeareana both appealed to and was accessible for collectors with purses large and small, helping to ensure a flourishing future for the trade.

With thanks to The Rosenbach, Philadelphia; and Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London.

For more on the trade in Folios and Shakespeareana in the early twentieth century, see: L. Cleaver and D. Magnusson, ‘The First Folio and the transatlantic trade in early drama c.1900–1929’, Journal of the History of Collections. 

Image of casket

Shakespeare Death Mask
King Lear leaflet
Shakespeare and Shakespearana