Conservation Diary — Day 7

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we had another great opportunity to share our work with visitors, including Dr Emma Smith whose research is the inspiration for the project.

We talked about the evidence of very minimal trimming on the edges of the book: ours is the second largest copy of the First Folio, with the largest being only ⅛ inch wider than ours, and the same height. This must have been at the request of the library — binders were keen to trim as much as possible from the edges of books to sell the waste for board-making and other purposes.

Nicole Gilroy, using splint repairs to support torn areas of the text

Nicole Gilroy, using splint repairs to support torn areas of the text

Here are some details of the splint repairs we are using to support the damages areas of the leaves. We use paste cooked from wheat-starch. This is a purified version of the flour paste Turbutt would have used for his repairs, but ours has the gluten removed.

Applying a splint repair to a torn area

Applying a splint repair to a torn area

Gluten is the component of flour-and-water paste that creates stiffness and possible discolouration in the resulting adhesive. We want our repairs to be as flexible and invisible as possible, which is why we remove the gluten from our paste. These gluten-free repairs are also easily reversible, should it become necessary to reverse them in the future.

Pasting out a repair splint

Pasting out a repair splint

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney

Conservation Diary — Day 6

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we have continued our work repairing and supporting the most vulnerable areas of the book.

Corner of leaf requiring unfolding to reveal obscured text

Corner of leaf requiring unfolding to reveal obscured text

Historically, it was common to patch damage in books and to paper documents by pasting neat squares of good quality writing paper over the damage.  Unfortunately, if the repair is heavier and stronger than the paper it supports, then it often causes further tearing or even loss to the original.

Tear requiring support to avoid further damage when turned

Tear requiring support to avoid further damage when turned

When we repair paper we now use a very fine, long-fibred Japanese paper and avoid hard-cut edges, instead feathering or shaping the edge of the repair to avoid creating further stress lines in the delicate original material.

Heavy paper repair applied by Richard Turbutt, which has caused further tearing

Heavy paper repair applied by Richard Turbutt, which has caused further tearing

This third image demonstrates an important principle that we follow in paper conservation: that the repair should not be stronger than the material to which it is applied.

Images of our repairs to the leaves of the First Folio to come tomorrow!

Conservation Diary — Day 5

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Romeo and Juliet, page 69, in 1905

Page 69 of Romeo and Juliet as it was when the volume came back to the Bodleian in 1905.

The first week is over, and we have now worked through the entire volume  turning over obscured text, and noting all the splint repairs that we feel need to be done in order to turn the pages without causing further damage. We are confident that we have enough time next week to complete these repairs, so that we can move to the digitization phase of the project on schedule.

We have been amazed at the physical observations that we have made as we go through the volume. The paper is in places extremely thin and often of second grade quality, with creases, pleats and papermaker’s flaws visible throughout. This has made the leaves particularly vulnerable to heavy use, and in many places the whole lower corner of the leaf has torn or broken away, one can almost imagine, in someone’s fingers.

Romeo and Juliet, page 69, in 2012

The same page today. Despite the extreme fragility of this leaf, the condition has not deteriorated.

We have an excellent image of the condition of page 69 of Romeo and Juliet in The Original Bodleian Copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare (The Turbott Shakespeare). Incredibly, it appears that the leaf is now, after 107 years, in identical condition, including the crumpled edge and extent of the tears.

It is fascinating to us, as conservators tasked with protecting the Libraries’ collections that although extreme damage was caused to the paper of the textblock during the first 40 years of its existence, the most serious damage caused in the more recent years (since 1905) has been to the attachment of the upper board, while the state of the paper seems to have remained constant. A strong reminder to us all of the importance of careful book handling and the use of suitable book supports when working with our Special Collections!

Three Musings on Early Shakespearean Printing

Guest blogger William Poole writes…

I visited the conservators working on the First Folio out at Osney Mead with a small group of interested observers. How fascinating to see this work as it is actually being carried out!

The visit set me thinking about a few different issues concerning the study of early printed Shakespeare and its reception.


The First Folio of 1623 is a justly celebrated book. But it may help us if we look at the Folio not as a lone bibliographical pioneer, the first folio-format book to contain solely plays in English, but as the culmination of a series of London experiments in folio literary publishing.

An excellent means of doing this has been provided by a sometime curator at the Folger Library, Steven K. Galbraith, in his essay ‘English Literary Folios 1593-1623: studying shifts in format’, in John N. King, ed., Tudor Books and Readers (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), chapter 3.

Galbraith is interested in trying to unpick what he terms “firstfoliocentricity”. In order to do this, he proposed a rough taxonomy of literary folios into three types. First there are ‘folios of economy’ (where paper is actually saved by printing in folio rather than any smaller format); then there are ‘folios of luxury’ (where attractiveness supersedes thrift); and finally there are ‘folios of necessity’ (where the amount of text to be set is so great that folio is the only one-volume option).

Now Shakespeare’s First Folio might actually be seen as the fifth in a series of experiments in literary folio publication stretching from the late Elizabethan to the late Jacobean periods. To summarize Galbraith: first came Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumous Arcadia … with Sundry New Additions (1598). This is an economical folio, where the jump from quarto to folio actually made better business sense. Next is Samuel Daniel’s The Works of Samuel Daniel (1601) – note the title, so Ben Jonson was not the first writer to use this grand appellation for such a venture – another example of a text ‘promoting’ from quarto to folio. And this, as Galbraith observes, is a folio of luxury. Third, Spenser’s posthumous Works (1611) is a folio of economy and necessity, as it is both very frugal in its use of paper and large enough in terms of material for folio format to be the only practicable means of publication – so some categories of folio can be combined. Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616) is probably the most famous of all these pre-Shakespearean literary folios, but we can see now that Jonson’s folio too is the culmination of a late Elizabethan tradition; and it is a folio of luxury, replete with ‘paratextual’ embellishments of some sophistication and cost.

Finally, there is Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). This, Galbraith shows, is clearly a folio of necessity and of economy. It contains thirty-six plays, a number far in excess of any previous literary folio containing plays. Folio was the only choice here, unless it was to be sold as a set of quarto volumes, not at all the impression its publishers wished to give. It is economically printed, with as little wasted space as possible – if a play ends on a recto, for instance, the next one starts on the verso. So when we talk about “luxury” folios we should perhaps think carefully before immediately applying that label to Shakespeare’s First Folio, as if “luxury” and “folio” are inseparable terms. Not, of course, that this was in any sense a cheap book to buy – rather the reverse. But purely in terms of the economics and even the aesthetics of printing, it is not the foremost example of a luxury literary folio – that title is best shared by Daniel’s and Jonson’s folios.


Bodleian Library lost its First Folio in the Restoration – it will have been sold among one of the many duplicate sales the Bodleian commenced in the 1660s. By the time of the librarian Hudson, indeed, what is now the Upper Reading Room contained tables of Bodleian duplicates on sale to academic tourists – there will be many books in libraries around the world with Bodleian shelfmarks that were purchased at such sales. The First Folio was sold on the second-hand market to an unknown buyer, and at that point it ceased to be in institutional hands until repurchased by the library. It is not annotated, as Bodleian readers (and it must be remembered that only graduates were permitted to read in the library in this period) were banned from annotating books, as they still are. But the book shows significant signs of wear, and it is likely that most of this wear reflects the attentions of readers in the first four decades of its existence, as a highly popular literary work will receive much more attention in a library frequented by in theory many hundreds of readers than it will at the hands of a sole owner.

This does raise an interesting question unrelated to the history of the Bodleian’s First Folio, but crucial to the understanding of the reading of the Folio in the Bodleian, and I have not encountered any discussion of this aspect of the history of that text in Oxford. For when the Bodleian sold its First Folio, it did so because it had acquired a subsequent edition – and this edition will have shouldered all the attentions formerly lavished upon its parent. Therefore, one interesting possibility for future research on the Bodleian’s Shakespeare collection would be to examine second, third, and fourth folios of known early provenance, and to ask them the questions about readership and use we usually reserve for the more famous, but long absent, First Folio. We might start with the Folios in the “Arch” series and ascertain which of them have secure early provenances. The Bodleian copy of the Second Folio (1632) is at Arch. G c.9; the copy of the Third Folio (1664) is at Arch. G c.11; and the Fourth Folio (1685) is at Arch. G c.13.

And we should not forget that there are at least a dozen copies of the second, third, and fourth folios in college libraries too. Perhaps some kind of “show-and-tell” folio party should be organized?


Something of the popularity of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as printed texts, in both early and more recent editions, in Restoration Oxford, can be gleaned from an extraordinary list amongst the papers of Anthony Wood. Here one will find details on many Shakespeare texts for sale, including a folio, I think the fourth if I remember correctly – Wood itemizes its contents too. This is Wood’s 1684 extensive list of plays for sale in Oxford from the shop of Nicholas Coxe, Manciple of St Edmund Hall. (Coxe or Cox, incidentally, also sold manuscripts of plays, and had published on the Oxford press in 1680 a pioneering catalogue of all plays published to that date.) This wonderful document, now part of MS Wood E 4, and listing hundreds of plays, is excellent evidence of literary taste in Oxford in the 1680s in playtexts. It is fascinating to note the presence in this list not only of very early as well as very recent editions of Shakespeare quartos, but also the problems of attribution facing the reader of playtexts, who by the 1680s was confronted with many texts attributed to Shakespeare that are clearly not by him.

William Poole
Fellow in English and Fellow Librarian
New College, University of Oxford

Conservation Diary — Day 4

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we finished straightening turned-over areas of text in the Histories, and will start on the Tragedies tomorrow. As we work through the volume we have been noting the areas that need splint repairs, and once we have been through the entire volume tomorrow we will review the repairs needed and make sure there is time to complete them all. We have also noted several features of interest that will not be clearly recorded by the digitization, such as tears that appear to have occurred during the papermaking process and which we will photograph if time allows.

Nicole and Arthur examine a tear

Nicole Gilroy and Arthur Green examine a tear, which turns out to be a flaw that occurred during the making of the paper rather than damage that has happened during handling of the book. This kind of information will be hard to examine on the flat, digitized images, and so we are recording it as much as possible during our treatment.

We had more visitors today, and the fascinating conversations continue – we discussed the separation of the plays into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories and when this distinction would have come about, and also discussed the other copies of the First Folio, particularly those in Oxford (at Queen’s and Wadham Colleges) and what level of use, repair and rebinding they display.

Conservation Diary — Day 3

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we examined the joint support patch, now that it is completely dry, and we are happy that it is doing its job. This means that we can open the volume more confidently and start to go through and reveal obscured text by unfolding areas of damaged paper, and also to make a note of leaves that will require splint repair.

Nicole Gilroy showing the volume to visitors

Nicole Gilroy showing the volume to visitors

It is a real treat to be able to go through this book leaf by leaf, and we are spotting all sorts of interesting features such as the bright red colour of the original edge sprinkling that has crept in between some of the leaves, and the variation in style of Turbutt’s old paper repairs – sometimes big rough patches and sometimes smaller more delicate repairs.

Andrew Honey explaining the paper treatment of the final three detached leaves

Andrew Honey explaining the paper treatment of the final three detached leaves

We had a group of visitors to see our work today, and we explained what we had done so far. We have another group of visitors tomorrow, and we are enjoying meeting the variety of people with an interest in this book and the project, from within the University but also from the Globe, the Shakespeare Institute and elsewhere.

Man-eating Money Maniacs

Sprint for Shakespeare has taken a life of its own, if a quick Google search is anything to go by. We’re delighted that it has caught so many people’s imaginations.

The generosity of the public enabled the Bodleian to buy back its original copy of the book in 1906. The Library Records (shelfmarks c. 1259, c. 1260, c. 1261, and c.1262) contain many touching letters from donors, large and small, some of which we have already quoted from. We’ll publish more of these letters throughout the campaign.

But pleas for philanthropy, or (to use today’s terminology) crowd-funding, were not met with universal sympathy. The headmaster of a Surrey school liked neither the approach nor the subject matter: “why all this fuss about Shakespeare?” Our champions — actors, directors, teachers, and academics — argue more eloquently against accusations of “literary provincialism” than I could.

Read the letter and make your own mind up about the debate!

SURREY   7 2 [19]06

Dear Mr Librarian,

I have to thank you for the circular which I received from you this morning about the repurchase for the Bodleian of the fist folio Shakespeare. My finances do not permit of my offering any contribution, but it may amuse your eminence to read why I should not offer anything if I could.

Supposing the book to be worth three thousand pounds, or three millions, the present possessor ought to present it to the Bodleian, if it is a question of the honour of the Library. And he ought to do that even if he was very hard up himself. That is the way my sentiment looks at the matter.

Secondly, having due regard to the cost of existing in this present wicked world, it is quite absurd that any copy of any book should command such a price. Only the man-eating money-maniacs of America could have started such an inept fashion. Look at the cou[n]terfeit presentments of their physiognomies in this week’s “Sketch” – if you ever come in contact with so vulgar a production) – and say whether such soulless animals deserve to be dignified with the title of Man. By all means let them have EVERYTHING that can be bought for money – the Pope’s tiara and the King’s crown and a majority in the House of Commons – and a free passage across the Styx. And let them have the Shakespeare, if the present possessor’s sentiment and conscience allows him to let them have it. The only cure for covetousness is satiety – and the Styx.

Thirdly, I have myself the same passionate love for good books that you yourself have – you, the embodied Bodleian. But if I want a Shakespeare, the University Press gives me a far better copy than Mr Turbutt’s for the sum of six shillings. And when I do not want it any longer, I can safely give that copy to any intelligent boy who wants to know something about English; and when I want Shakespeare again, the University Press will provide me with a second one (it is really now the seventh) at the same modest figure. Books of historic interest should of course be in your charge; but they should be always presented – the donor does himself an honour by giving to the Bodleian, and he ought to feel insulted by the mere suggestion for of his taking money for his gift, as though he were dealing in cattle or dirty South African shares. If I were starving and possessed the Medicean Vergil, I would give it into your charge and scorn to say anything about the starvation. I will send you by return of post the most valuable book I possess, if you want it, and have not got it; it is a Vulgate printed by Froben of Basle, November 1st, 1495.

Fourthly, why all this fuss about Shakespeare? If you were offered genuine manuscripts of the lost plays of Sophocles, I can imagine that heaven and earth ought to be moved to put them where they could be seen by competent persons and properly edited. The University Press would then provide us, who love Sophocles and decent literature, with copies, much better for practical purposes than the originals, at a reasonable sum. But why all this fuss about Shakespeare? Isn’t it an artificially induced furore? Does it not remind you of the intense enthusiasm for printing millions of copies of the English Bible – an enthusiasm which is the special characteristic of a class of people who are as ignorant as sin of the real meaning and history of that collection of books? Why should the great, the dignified, Bodleian Library lend itself to the encouragement of such literary provincialism?

With genuine respect, and half-genuine sorrow (to fool with words after the Elizabethan style) I subscribe myself

Yours sincerely

A Heroic King Lear

Guest blogger, Perry Mills writes…

In 1993 Adrian Noble directed King Lear for the RSC for the second time. I had seen his previous assault on the play in 1982, a production which contained a truly memorable performance by Antony Sher as the Fool. Apparently Harley Granville-Barker suggested to John Gielgud as he prepared to play the title role on one occasion, “Get yourself a light Cordelia.” Perhaps Michael Gambon would advise Lears designate, “Get yourself a mediocre Fool” since most reviewers seemed to focus on Sher, which was understandable.

Noble certainly appeared to have taken similar advice 11 years later; this time the spotlight was well and truly on the throne – and those words are not a cliché.

I had seen King Lear several times by then and adored the play, but it had never moved me to tears. And I felt sure it should.

I had been impressed and harrowed and shocked and fascinated at various times; but never powerfully moved.

And then I saw Robert Stephens take the role in 1993. Indeed, I saw him three times and on each occasion – sometimes at different moments, but always in the final scene – the critical faculties fell away and I just felt. Just felt… overwhelming grief and loss and pity.

Expectations were high: Stephens had given an award-winning performance as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays two years earlier with the same director. There was the sense that the actor had been waiting for the role all of his career – or perhaps it was the other way round. And Stephens was an ill man; in fact, the understudy had to perform the early performances. By all accounts, he was very good. This only added to the pressure.

It wasn’t a uniformly great production. Although on the whole the RSC had pulled in the First Team – Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley, Jenny Quayle, Owen Teale, David Calder – nevertheless there were some unnecessary things going on with a map on the floor and a globe which expelled red sand high upstage centre. There was real water in the storm scene, and that was impressive.

Truly centre stage, however, was Robert Stephens. I cannot convey the power of his performance by specific examples, however well he met the challenges – the curses, his exchanges with the Fool, his disintegration into madness, the heartbreaking meeting with Gloucester in Act IV, the waking up to Cordelia, the folly of his false hope in “birds i’th’cage”, his final appearance with the dead Cordelia. (Some audiences claim that he carried her on. However, each time I saw it a group of soldiers did the business whilst Lear fussed around them. Stephens was too weak to lift even Abigail McKern.) On this occasion, the whole was far greater than the parts. Particular moments simply contributed to the complete characterisation.

Stephens was an heroic actor, technically awesome (although a minor detail such as line accuracy was not always a priority) and prepared to take thrilling risks. However, more than anything else it was his capacity for utter simplicity that opened the floodgates – and I’m not talking about the rain effects.

Shakespeare can do every kind of emotional effect, and he does. But what is so thrilling, so extraordinary, and so moving is that capacity to reduce it right down. “Never, never, never, never, never” (V, iii).

And Robert Stephens understood that.

Perry Mills
Teacher, King Edward VI School

Conservation Diary — Day 2

Nicole Gilroy writes…

Today we decided on the exact laminate of papers to use for our repair patch, and made up some acrylic colour to match the repair in with the leather of the original. This means that the repair will not be visually obtrusive, though it will be clear on close inspection what we have done. We have also secured some lifting fragments of the paper label on the spine.

Colour-testing laminates

Creating a colour match for the repair patch

The joint repair bridges between the spine of the text-block and the board, secured with wheat-starch paste in an existing split between the layers making up the paste-board. We need to carefully judge the pressure with which we position the repair, so that the board function is supported without creating tensions elsewhere in the joint.

Nicole Gilroy attaches the laminate

Applying the joint support patch

We have photographed the position of the three detached leaves at the back of the volume, and started work to uncrumple them and reveal the obscured text. This involves relaxing the creases in the paper using a mixture of water and alcohol on a fine brush, and then unfolding the turned-over text, and gently restraining under felts until dry. As with the rest of the treatment, this is absolutely minimal, and we are only treating areas where text is obscured. We are finding it an interesting discipline to “sit on our hands” where, in most of our usual work, we would judge it was appropriate to do more in-depth treatment.