Our new curator of early modern books and prints, Caroline Duroselle-Melish, and I were up in the conservation lab a few days ago, consulting with book conservator Adrienne Bell on the optimal opening for safely digitizing a quarto edition of Henry VI, Part 3 (STC 21006a copy 1) in preparation for our “Wonder of Will” commemoration activities next year at the Folger. While inspecting the book, we noticed that the title leaf and last leaf were much thicker than the other leaves, and entirely blank on their versos. That seemed strange, so we looked at the title page through transmitted daylight to investigate further. This is what we saw (click to enlarge the images in this post):
Yes, smiley faces! Or rather, surprised faces and skeptical suns with very expressive eyebrows. The suns immediately bring to mind one of Edward’s lines from early in the play: “Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?” (2.1.25) When Edward (who at various points in the play is King Edward IV) sees these suns, he interprets this strange phenomenon as a sign that “the sons of brave Plantagenet” should “join our lights together” (2.1.35, 37). Could these suns be a depiction of the “sun in splendor” or “sunburst,” thought to have been adopted by Edward IV as a personal badge after this moment: “henceforward will I bear / Upon my target three fair shining suns” (39-40)? Was the doodler struck by this passage in the play and experimenting with depicting sun faces?
We then eagerly consulted the final leaf under transmitted light and saw more faces, and the name “Thomas King” written multiple times in a childish hand.
Both of these leaves had been backed, or reinforced, with thick leaves of paper, rendering the ink doodles entirely invisible.
Who in their right mind would attempt to obscure such playfulness and hide the name of an early user of the book? It is easy to ask this question now, with widespread scholarly interest in book ownership, readership, and marginalia. But what makes a book marketable and valuable to a research collection today is quite different from even a generation ago.
Hiding marks or previous ownership in books is not a modern phenomenon; it has been practiced since at least medieval times. Amateur techniques included scratching the surface of the parchment or paper with a quill or a knife; pasting paper over textual or visual marks; or covering them with ink or paint. More advanced techniques required the assistance of a professional, that is, a bookbinder. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the fashion among collectors was to own pristine copies of rare books, it was common to wash, bleach, and press the paper of books, which made the paper thinner and paler and hastened the disappearance of marks deemed unworthy of the author or the text.
When this copy of 3 Henry VI was rebound in the 19th century, the edges of its leaves were trimmed and the aforementioned back of the title page and last page of text were laminated. Along with many other significant early editions of the works of Shakespeare in the Curzon-Howe family library in Gopsal Hall, Leicestershire, it was sold at auction by Richard George Penn Curzon-Howe, fourth Earl of Howe. At the opening of the sale at Sotheby’s on Saturday, December 21, 1907, bidders were informed that the first 28 items in the catalog—all quarto copies of Shakespeare’s plays from the Curzon-Howe collection—had been purchased as a single lot prior to the sale. The buyer was selling at the auction the 14 copies he did not wish to keep for his collection. The buyer’s name, although not revealed at the time, was Henry Folger.
We do not yet know who Thomas King was or when he added his name or whether or not he is responsible for the sun faces, but his interactions with the endleaves of a Shakespeare quarto deserve notice—if only through digital images and transmitted light—after well over a century of invisibility.