Image: Spine of the Sterling first folio

What, one might wonder, remains to be said about any single known Shakespeare first folios? Have not Anthony West’s 2003 detailed twenty-first censuses, alone and with Eric Rasmussen’s 2011 publication covered everything? Not quite, says Dr Karan Attar, and both the Senate House Library first folios have repaid further investigation.

First, let us take the first folio purchased by the Baconian Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (who used it to ‘prove’ Sir Francis Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare) and bequeathed to the University of London by his widow in 1929. This copy has not always been valued.

After Sir Peter Thompson (1698–1770), its first known owner, died, all his books passed to his nephew, another Peter Thompson. He was a military man who lacked interest in it. ‘I am grieved to add that the collection of Sir Peter Thompson in a great measure perished from want of suitable care’, wrote Mark Noble in The Lives of the Society of Antiquaries in London, an unpublished volume from 1818 (p. 248) held in the library of the Society of Antiquaries.

The younger Peter Thompson was not the only philistine. When Thompson’s library was sold at auction in 1815 the folio was purchased by another bookseller, Longman, in whose hands it remained for at least six years. Much later in the century, in 1890, it aroused little enthusiasm at the time that Durning-Lawrence acquired it, as the auction price it fetched was only £115, well below the average price of a First Folio of £324 in the 1880s and £354 in the 1890s.

Yet the copy was special. Not only does it contain an odd reading in Othello, IV.ii.184 – one of just nine known extant copies to do so – it is this copy in which the younger James Boswell, who completed Edmond Malone’s second edition of Shakespeare, discovered the odd reading. His scholarly examination took place around 1821 while the copy was at Longmans.

Edmond Malone’s previous edition of Shakespeare (1790) does not mention the odd reading. But the Malone-Boswell edition of 1821 notes as an appendix (vol. 21, p. 450): ‘In a copy now or very lately in the hands of Messrs Longman and Co, in Othello, p. 333, col. 1, top line, the words “and Hell gnaw his bones,” are substituted for the first line of Roderigo’s speech, “I have heard thus much,” &c.’

In the earliest census of Shakespeare folios, Thomas Frognall Dibdin repeated the oddity, citing the edition (The Library Companion, or, The Young Man’s Guide and the Old Man’s Comfort in the Choice of a Library (London, 1824, p. 815). It is the only copy in the census to rate a textual note.

In keeping with his other writings, one might have expected Durning-Lawrence to apply a cipher theory to the lines to claim that they proclaimed to the initiated Bacon’s authorship. He did not. But if he did not realise that his copy was unusual, he ought to have done: on the same shelf in his library which held Durning-Lawrence’s Shakespeare folios was a manuscript notebook containing information about early editions of Shakespeare, which included a copy of Dibdin’s census (University of London, MS306).

The first folio which had belonged to EMI magnate Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958), has long been known for its peregrinations. It was one of the first sets of Shakespeare’s works to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean, as the printed catalogue of the Sterling Library (1954) states: ‘This set belonged to Francis Calley Gray of Boston Mass., who acquired it c.1836. It was therefore one of the earliest sets to be bought by an American collector.’

Further investigation pushed back the dates. The notion that Gray bought the folio in about 1836 stems from a description in a census of Shakespeare folios from 1876, not widely available in the UK, that the copy: ‘belonged to … the late Francis C. Gray, and is thought to have been in his possession forty years ago.’ (Justin Winsor, A Bibliography of the Original Quartos and Folios of Shakespeare with Particular Reference to Copies in America, Boston, 1876, p. 88).

The asseveration does not preclude the possibility of the folio having been in Gray’s position earlier than 1836. In 1830 Gray visited England and purchased books: could the folios have been among them? And could the Sterling set at Senate House Library be not merely one of the first, perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s folios, to migrate to America, but one of the first sets to have been put together at all?

Accounts by Henry Wheatley (1898) and Anthony West (2001) refer to copies of the first four folios having been put together as sets for sale from about 1824, when the booksellers Thomas Thorpe and William Pickering advertised sets for £100 and £95 respectively. Their information and the date are based on Dibdin’s Library Companion.

Dibdin, however, mentions alongside the Thorpe and Pickering sets a third set, sold by Messrs Arch for £84. It sounds from the description as if it might have been the Sterling one. Thus the copy sets another record.

In 1824 Dibdin called the Shakespeare first folio ‘a triumphantly trading article’. It remains a triumphantly rewarding research article.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies (IES), School of Advanced Study, University of London, and Senate House Library’s (SHL) curator of rare books and university art. Her article, ‘Folios in context: collecting Shakespeare at the University of London’, will be published in The Library on 19 March and available digitally and in print from SHL.