Pen facsimiles of early print

As the commenters on last week’s crocodile guessed, the mystery image showed writing masquerading as print or, to use the more formal term, a pen facsimile (click on any of the images in the post to enlarge them):

May crocodile

pen facsimile of the 1611 Authorized Bible (STC 2216), sig. ^2^2A6r

It’s telling that two of the three guesses focused not on the blackletter but on the roman font and the decorated initial. Both of those aspects, I think, are easier to spot as being somehow “off” in comparison to what we expect from print. But we’re not so used to looking at blackletter, and so a manuscript facsimile of that type isn’t quite as tell-tale. This is particularly true when the facsimile doesn’t have the print nearby as a point of comparison, but the difference isn’t necessarily glaring even looking across the gutter to the early printed page: 


opening contrasting print (on the left) with pen facsimile (right) sig. 2A5v- ^2^2A6r

The book in question is the Folger’s copy of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible (commonly referred to as the King James Bible). The last leaves of the book are increasingly damaged—the corners are missing and repaired with blank paper—until the final original leaf is entirely gone. In its place is a pen facsimile, a hand-drawn copy of what the original leaf would have looked like.1 As you can see by comparing the facsimile with the original leaf, here shown in the copy at the University of Pennsylvania, the facsimilist did a very good job:

comparison of the final leaf; pen facsimile (left) and original leaf (right, from Penn)

comparison of the final leaf; pen facsimile (left) and original leaf (right, from Penn)

But you can also see, when you’re looking for it, that the pen facsimile is just a bit wobblier than the print original—the kerning is just slightly irregular, some of the long-s’s are missing their crossbar, and the three capital-G’s starting the instances of “God” in the third verse are all just slightly differently shaped.

Once you know which is which, it’s hard not to unsee the details that reveal it as a facsimile. So try turning your powers of observation to these leaves. Which is the pen facsimile and which is the original print leaf?

which is which? (click to go to a zoomable comparison)

which is which? (click to go to a zoomable comparison)

Made up your mind? Here’s a comparison that makes it clearer:

Do you see the signature under the device on the left? That’s the indication that this leaf is a facsimile. (The work in question here is, of course, the First Folio; the leaf is the last leaf of text—the ending of Cymbeline—and the facsimile is in copy number 23; you can look at it in detail in our digital image collection. The print leaf I used for comparison comes from copy number 68 and it is also in our digital image collection.)

Adding pen facsimiles of missing or damaged leaves was not unusual in the nineteenth century for collectors who preferred their works to be pristine and perfect, a common preference. It’s not clear who the facsimilist was for the Folger’s King James Bible, or when it was done. There’s a note in the catalog of the former owner, W.T. Smedley, from nineteenth-century Bible expert Francis Fry attesting to the book’s good condition and noting that “The last leaf is repaired. It is very rare. They are so often lost.” Either Fry was using “repaired” as a euphemism for “facsimile” (although this seems unlikely, since he accurately describes the volume’s title page as a facsimile) or it was done after Fry examined the book.

The facsimilist of the First Folio leaf, by contrast, is a well-known figure and renowned for his skill in imitating early print. John Harris was even hired by Antonio Panizzi, then the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, to “perfect” their early printed works.2 Harris was so well practiced at imitating early print that it was apparently very difficult to differentiate his facsimiles from original leaves. Summarizing a contemporary’s account of Harris’s work, Toshiyuki Takamiya writes,

… Panizzi and two other librarians, failing to detect facsimiles in one of the perfected books, called in Harris to point out the leaves he had supplied; and it was only after considerable examination that he was able to detect them. Following this incident, on 8 July 1843, Panizzi persuaded the trustees of the Museum to order that Harris in future sign any leaf he recreated with the formula, ‘This is by J.H.—A.P.’ One can also encounter other signatures such as ‘F.S. by I.H.’, ‘by H’, and ‘Harris jur.’ used on facsimiles.3

Neither Harris nor Panizzi, nor the facsimilist of the KJV, were intending to deceive anyone by passing off copies as originals. Rather, the intent was to make as close to complete as possible copies of works that were missing leaves.

While I’m astounded by the talent of the facsimilists we just saw, my favorite pen facsimile reveals not remarkable skill, but remarkable desire. It’s not what I would do if I owned a First Folio with a torn title page, but then again, I can’t begrudge the desire of this owner to make clear what this book is.

perfecting the title page in a First Folio

perfecting the title page in a First Folio

  1. A side note: the last leaf of this book is ²2A6, which means it’s the second occurrence of the AA series. Since the captions don’t display superscripts well, I’ve used carets to surround the initial 2. It is, I realize, not the most straightforward of signature marks. But the full sequence, which makes it slightly clearer, is A⁶ B² C⁶ D⁴; A-4Z⁶ 5A-5C⁶; ²A-²Z⁶ ²2A⁶. []
  2. “Perfect” is one of those odd bibliographical terms that shows how much standards and tastes have changed since we’ve been studying these objects. To “perfect” a book is to supply any missing or damaged leaves with leaves from another copy of that book or with facsimiles of those leaves. By our standards, this is far from a perfect practice and one that libraries today don’t follow. []
  3. Toshiuki Takamiya, “John Harris and the facsimile pages” in Caxton’s Chaucer (British Library) []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.


  1. Dealer’s description of a Second Folio just arrived in my in-box. It says, ‘The “To the Reader” leaf and title-page are expertly accomplished antique facsimiles on old paper and the final Cymbeline leaf as these, all done many years ago in completely unobtrusive and very skilled workmanship.’

    Reminds me of the sign in a shop window down the street advertising “original reproductions” of John F. Kennedy inauguration invitations.

  2. Don’t bitch about the office copier breaking again…check out these incredible pen facsimiles:

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