Friday, March 4, 2011

Forgotten Folios and Private Portraits

As I was watching Antiques Roadshow the other night (yes, that is correct, I watch Antiques Roadshow), much to my surprise, amongst the Federalist furniture and Tiffany lamps, there unexpectedly appeared a partial first folio of Shakespeare’s plays. True, this was not the entire folio as it was first published by Shakespeare’s colleagues Heminges and Condell in 1623, of which some 219 are known to still exist of the original printing of approximately 750. Instead, this one had been re-bound sometime in the nineteenth century and contained only the complete first and third parts of Henry VI (the latter of which you may, coincidentally, see currently on the Blackfriars stage). Still, these two plays along, along with the remaining individual pages from several other plays, were valued at $40,000 to $50,000. ‘Swounds! See for yourself.

Now, of course, all first folios were at one point “privately owned.” Yet to see an original printing of Shakespeare’s work, partial or otherwise, appear from the dusty depths of someone’s attic was a shock. The idea of artifacts directly relating to the celebrated Shakespeare not all being appropriately stowed in various libraries or museums was one I, at least, had never before considered. A quick internet search of various auction houses and newspaper articles reveals, however, that pieces of Shakespeare are still out there to be had – if, that is, you have a cool couple million or so to spare. And, additionally, new items are coming to light fairly regularly, each one often changing or challenging the contemporary view of that elusive figure, William Shakespeare.

An interesting study of how the remaining first folios have changed hands and increased in value over time may be seen by following the path of those belonging to one Dr. Rosenbach. Rosenbach, an American antique book collector, purchased two in 1922, one for £8,600, the highest amount for a first folio ever paid up to that time. Previously, the same folio had sold in 1864 to a British baroness for £716. Rosenbach later sold his entire collection, which by then totaled 73 folios and quartos, to a Swiss banker for over one million dollars, as this Time article from 1952, entitled “Goodbye, Shakespeare,” explains. On an interesting side note: in the past, Rosenbach had purchased yet another first folio for Harry Widener, an American businessman who then inconveniently perished in the Titanic disaster. Widener’s private collection was subsequently donated to Harvard, where it, folio included, became available to the public. You may still see it there today.

New York Times headline from 1922

Almost sixty years later, folios are still floating around out there, continuing to grow in value. In 2006, a first folio sold at Sotheby’s in London for £2.8 million. As recently as December 2010, another one went up for auction, again at Sotheby’s. This copy sold for £1.5 million. Both sold to private collectors.

A Sotheby's employee handles a copy of Shakespeare's complete first folio

One form of Shakespearean material culture which continues to shake up the scholarly world whenever it emerges from private ownership is portraiture. The current exhibition at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, entitled “The Changing Face of William Shakespeare,” focuses on this very subject. The exhibit includes a portrait which, in 2009, was revealed to the world as a candidate for the only likeness for which Shakespeare may have sat in his lifetime. Believed to have been painted in 1610, when Shakespeare was 46, the image had hung for centuries in a house in Ireland belonging to the Cobbe family, and it wasn’t until its owner happened to spy a similar work at the National Portrait Gallery in Britain that a connection was made. Naturally, much controversy has arisen over the authenticity of the portrait. The subject’s elaborate dress and youthful appearance led many scholars to believe it was not Shakespeare but a gentleman by the name of Sir Thomas Overbury. The two sides of the argument are laid out in these two articles:

The New York Times VS. The London Times

The Cobbe portrait – the true face of Shakespeare?

So, is this dashing figure indeed Shakespeare? What new portraits might come to light down the road? Are there yet more unknown folios waiting to be discovered, tucked away in crowded bookshelves or hidden in the bottoms of boxes? Next to Shakespeare’s long lost, super secret diary? Well, maybe that’s wishful thinking. Then again, maybe I need to go home and clean out my basement…

Natalie A.

PS. For a more in-depth exploration of the first folio and its history, the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, DC (which also owns about a third of those still in existence), provides an interactive online copy for your perusing pleasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment