The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

John Bell, bibliographic nightmare

Some books are more challenging than others; some bibliographic questions are more complicated than others. This is the first of two posts that looks at a particularly challenging cataloging question. Today’s post will set up the challenge; the next one will take you into the nitty gritty of the “bibliographic nightmare” that is John Bell. 1

John Bell (1745-1831) was a bookseller and a printer who was a major player in the London book trade and who has been alternately referred to as enterprising, pugnacious, and “that mischievous spirit, the very Puck of booksellers.” 2 One of his claims to fame is being the printer with the curious distinction of having discontinued the use of the long ‘s’.

advertisement highlighting Bell's use of the rounded-s

But among Shakespeareans, Bell is best known for his “acting” and “literary” editions of Shakespeare. These editions are notable not necessarily for their editorial wisdom; the acting editions were based on Drury Lane and Covent Garden promptbooks, complete with the cuts and additions popular in performance. But Bell’s editions are remarkable for their immense popularity with his contemporaneous general public, who gobbled up the affordable, illustrated pocket volumes of Shakespeare’s plays, much to the chagrin of his publishing rivals, whose claim to the Shakespeare copyrights was tenuous, at best. 3 Not only were Bell’s editions themselves popular, they had a wide impact on other Shakespeare editions as well. As Kalman Burnim and Philip Highfill put it in their catalog of his illustrations, “The editions … published by John Bell, separately and in collections, were the most numerous, popular, carefully produced, and prominently advertised publications of that genre. They presented the most striking innovations in design, print, and illustration, and hence were widely copied or plagiarized.” 4

Among Bell’s greatest innovations was the incorporation of engraved landscape genre scenes within the text and commissioning copper-plate engraved portraits of the most prominent actors of the day. The inclusion of actor portraits not only boosted sales in his day (you could buy the complete text of the play along with its commissioned portrait for less than buying a single print of an actor), but has helped theater historians study the dynamics of eighteenth-century theatrical celebrity.

Mrs Inchbald as the Lady Abbess, published in Bell's Comedy of Errors

In addition to selling two different editions—the acting and the literary Shakespeare—Bell sold his editions in multiple formats, including as complete sets, individual plays, and volumes of multiple plays. Below is one example, the title page from a multiple-play volume from his 20-volume literary edition, The Dramatick Writings of Will. Shakspere, with the notes of all the various commentators, printed complete from the best editions of Sam. Johnson and Geo. Steevens.

Title page to the third volume of the 1788 20-volume edition of Shakespeare (PR2752 1788b copy 1 Sh.Col.)

This is where we start to see how tricky working with Bell can be. The volume title page clearly indicates that this was printed in 1788. Of course, since Bell originally printed and sold the plays, as well as their annotations, individually, play title pages are dated 1785 or 1786, while annotation title pages are dated 1787. But what about “editions” of the collected plays, with play title pages dated between 1785 and 1792? Or sets with imprints spanning the years 1785 to 1806, some sold by John Bell, some by John Cawthorn?

Tempest title page, 1785 (PR2752 1788b copy 4 pt.1 Sh.Col.)

Here’s how the Folger Library card catalog explains the situation:

All the sets of 1788 Bell have general and vol. titles dated 1788. Individual plays are of two or more editions of different date, usually mixed in sets. Plays of the first edition were printed in two formats, 8vo and 12mo.

The two formats of the 1788 Bell

In other words, our dear printer and bookseller produced many editions, and editions within editions, of the collected works of the variously spelled Will.[iam] Shak[e]spe[a]re throughout the 1770s, 1780s, and early 1790s. Compare the records in Hamnet for the first of John Bell’s Works of Shakespeare in 1773/74 as an example of variants due to the size of the page or different settings of type:

PR2752 1774a Sh.Col.

PR2752 1774b c. 1,3-7,9 Sh.Col. large paper format

PR2752 1774b c.2,8 Sh.Col. regular paper format

At his bankruptcy sale in 1793, Bell’s stock of remainders, copper-plates, and printed plays were bought by his debtor John Cawthorn and by the publisher James Barker. Both of these individuals recycled the Bell’s 1780s editions—sometimes with new imprints reflecting their names, other times with Bell’s original information—into the 19th century.

And this would be why John Bell is a bibliographic nightmare.

Carrie’s next post will be about an interesting bibliographic anomaly she came across while cataloging the Bell’s “1788b” holdings in the Folger’s Shakespeare collection. Stay tuned!


  1. The quote is from Deborah J. Leslie, who not only put her finger on the experience of dealing with Bell’s editions, but whose help in sorting through the nightmare was invaluable.
  2. Charles Knight, Shadows of the Old Booksellers (London, 1865), as quoted in Kalman A. Burnim and Philip H. Highfill, John Bell, Patron of British Theatrical Portraiture: A Catalog of the Theatrical Portraits in His Editions of Bell’s Shakespeare and Bell’s British Theatre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1998), p3.
  3. See Carrie’s earlier post on Tonson and Walker battling over 18th-century rights to Shakespeare for more on how new regulations about copyright upended the Shakespeare publishing field.
  4. Burnham and Highfill, p.10


  • Further to this, Bonnell’s ‘Disreputable trade’ is an excellent study of Bell’s entrepreneurial innovations and while concentrating on his poetry series has much that is useful in untangling the bibliographical challenges of his play series.
    Very much looking forward to part two. Would be interested to know if the Folger has any of the carrying cases that Bell sold to contain his series.

    • Thank you for pointing out that resource, Valerie. I have not come across one of the carrying cases mentioned by Bonnell, but maybe those were specifically for Bell’s poetry editions, which I am not cataloging (or, worse, have yet to come across)!

  • I’m amused that the advert praising the rounded-s names the “more open” appearance of the lines as a virtue, but still fills the space between the lines with a “ct” ligature. (For what it’s worth, I’m easily amused).

  • Just found your reference to John Cawthorn. According to Ian Maxted it was Barker the bookseller from the Strand, who bought Bell’s books in a bankruptcy sale (in 1793?) George Cawthorn went into partnership with Bell in 1794 and then subsequently locked Bell out of the British Library address several years later probably because of mounting debts. In arbitration over the lock out, George Cawthorn was given the right to publish the future Bell Shakespeare (after 1796?) and the right to use the name of the British Library. It became a very public fight with Bell using newspaper advertising to castigate Cawthorn. George Cawthorn then went bankrupt himself in 1802, but passed on future editions to of the Bell Shakespeare to John Cawthorn (a cousin, we believe) who then commenced business at 5 Catherine Street, Strand in 1802 and worked there until his death in 1816. George died in 1804. Just to confuse things, James Cawthorn (George’s young son,) took over the British Library at 132 Strand and then moved to Cockspur Street. He later became partners with Hutt and published as Cawthorn and Hutt. Hope that this helps.

    Ian Maxted is a lovely person who would be the one to contact regarding any questions that you may have in your research as he was very helpful when I contacted him. His blog is the Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade

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