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Searching for Shakespeare’s book: The Ashburnham folio

The 4th Earl of Ashburnham possessed a massive book collection and was its proud owner. One of his favourite things to read was both the first and second folios of William Shakespeare's plays.

Mareike Doleschal

I imagined researching the provenance of the most valuable book in our collection, the so-called Ashburnham Folio, would be a bit like going on a journey through previous owners’ libraries and book dealers’ shops, but often it has been more like searching for a needle in a haystack. Searching the provenance of a book is not an easy task, as Sidney Lee pointed out in his census of first folios published in 1902: “Most of the copies have changed hands since their publication in 1623 with a frequency, often with a secrecy, and invariably with an absence of detailed record, that present serious stumbling blocks to the bibliographical pedigree-maker.”

Ashburnham Folio Larger
“Mr VVilliam Shakespeares comedies histories & tragedies” The title page of the Ashburnham First Folio

Often marginalia give a clue to previous owners, but unfortunately the pages of the Trust’s Ashburnham folio were “washed” in the C19th, and this procedure may well have removed any marks previous owners might have made in the book. Washing a book is a practice that wasn’t approved of by all C19th book collectors - including the 4th Earl of Ashburnham, who owned our folio from 1836-1889. According to the book dealer Quaritch, the 4th Earl preferred his books in original binding, “washing and rebinding was an abomination to him.” The book dealers Sotheran and Co bought the folio from his son, the 5th Earl, on behalf of the Trust for £585 (in today’s money £36,000).

Beyond the mere facts of when the 4th Earl of Ashburnham purchased the folio, how much he paid for it, and from whom he bought it, I’ve been particularly intrigued to find out why he wanted to add it to his already outstanding collection of manuscripts and early printed books. What sort of person was he? Did he read his books or did he acquire them with the sole purpose of decorating the shelves of his library at Ashburnham Place? Did he see them as status symbols aimed at impressing his visitors to the most famous library in Europe? Researching the archive catalogue of the East Sussex Records Office, where most of the papers relating to Ashburnham Place are held, the senior archivist there kindly searched a volume for me which contains information regarding the purchases and prices the 4th Earl paid for books acquired between the years 1827-1875. He discovered that the 4th Earl purchased the First Folio in 1836 for £52 and 10 shillings from the book dealers Payne and Foss (in today’s money this would be £2500).

Unlike his fellow aristocrats, most of whom didn’t read the books they owned, the 4th Earl was a true book lover. His passion for books began at a young age and while still at school he purchased his first early printed book. Soon he acquired the most valuable early printed books in the world: for example, he owned two Gutenberg Bibles - one printed on velum, the other on paper. Unlike his aristocratic contemporaries, the 4th Earl read his books and invited others, including the poet Swinburne, to use his library.

What kind of person was the 4th Earl, apart from being a book lover and scholar? Quaritch describes Bertram Ashburnham as a “man of commanding presence, courtly manners, fine features and a deep voice. His demeanour was stern and haughty and his temperament overbearing.” The 4th Earl had a keen interest in the collected works of Shakespeare and no price seemed too high to him for a folio of Shakespeare’s collected works. In 1848, he commissioned the book dealer Josef Lilly to buy a second folio in the original binding without telling him a definite price. In those days, a second folio was worth about £10-£15. When the bidding for a second folio reached £60, Lilly decided not to purchase it as he considered the price too high. But the Earl was not pleased, and his response to Lilly’s failure to buy the second folio shows how much he’d wanted to add it to his fine collection: “What do you mean by letting it go at that price, did I not tell you to buy it?”

The 4th Earl’s son viewed his father’s library like so many other aristocrats who inherited libraries: as a source for raising much needed extra funds. In just twenty years, the 5th Earl dispersed the entire library which his father had built up over a fifty year period. The collection of printed books was sold at Sotheby’s in 1897 and 1898, and realised a total of £67.712 (over 4 million in today’s money).

The denuding of the shelves of a great library must have been a sad spectacle, but in the case of the Ashburnham library it was only a taste of what was to come. In the 1950s Ashburnham Place was largely demolished, leaving only a small part of the once grand house. John Harris in his poignant book entitled No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper describes the dispersal of the collection at Ashburnham Place as “one (if not the worst) of a series of losses.” In his beautifully written book, Harris laments the demise of the unloved white elephants, and I envy him for having had the opportunity to visit libraries, some of which were still complete. He often entered through windows to find rooms stuffed with curiosities, but the rooms he explored were in a sad state of decay and nature was in the process of taking over the houses.

I would’ve liked to find a painting of the 4th Earl of Ashburnham sitting in his library in a comfy arm chair with the first folio in his lap and the poet Swinburne, his nephew, looking over his shoulder, but unfortunately I didn’t find such a painting. However, I can easily imagine him browsing through the folio, perhaps even writing in the margins. Our most valuable book is aptly named after one of the greatest book lovers of the nineteenth century.

As always with many thanks to volunteer Karen Wyld for helping me with researching this piece. Thanks also to David Hopes for borrowing the book The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975 from the University of Birmingham Library and lending it to me. Thank you to Philip Bye, Senior Archivist at East Sussex Records Office, and Mr. Liam Sims at the Rare Books Department at Cambridge University Library for checking Payne and Foss sales catalogues.


Harris, John: No voice from the hall: early memories of a country house snooper, London, John Murray, 2000

Lee, Sidney: Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. A supplement to the reproduction in facsimile of the first folio edition (1623)… containing a census of extant copies with some account of their history and condition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1902

Quaritch. Bernard: Contributions towards a dictionary of English book-collectors, as also of some foreign collectors whose libraries were incorporated in English collections or whose books are chiefly met with in England, London, 1892-1921

Reid, Peter H.: The decline and fall of the British Country House Library

Strong, Roy: The destruction of the country house 1875-1975, London, Thames and Hudson, 1974