Sidney Lee, Henry Folger, and the First Folio

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Sidney Lee né Solomon Lazarus Lee in London in 1859 was a biographer and Shakespearean scholar. He edited the Dictionary of National Biography to which he contributed over 800 articles. He wrote a biography of Shakespeare in 1898. We Americans remember that he delivered lectures on “Foreign Influences in English Literature” at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at the Lowell Institute in Boston on “Great Englishmen of the 16th Century” in 1903. That year, he was elected chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a position he held until his death in 1926. He produced an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works in 1906. Lee was knighted in 1911, the year Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930) was elected president of the Standard Oil Company of New York.

Lee and Folger were both captivated by the Bard’s First Folio (1623). Lee first contacted Folger in February 1901 by sending an eight-page leaflet with ten questions concerning his proposed First Folio census, the first one ever conducted. In fact, it was the first census of any book. Receiving no answer, Lee wrote Folger again on April 6, 1901 from his home in Kensington. Lee had common friends write Folger to intercede on his behalf, to no avail. Folger was a reserved, secretive man. He was persuaded that if the public knew he was buying up all the First Folios he could their price in the marketplace would soar.

 Lee wrote the oil executive on May 9, 1902 with urgency: “I should be greatly obliged if you would give me particulars respecting the First Folio of Shakespeare which I am told is in your library. My list of extant copies of the First Folio has to go to press very soon. I believe it to be fairly complete but should not like to omit mention of any copy if I can possibly help it.” Lee considered his census “fairly complete.” He thought Folger possessed only one.

Oxford’s Clarendon Press published Sidney Lee’s Census of Shakespeare’s First Folio in December 1902, as a supplement to his Oxford facsimile edition of the First Folio. The 9X14-inch 45-page Census included 158 copies that he numbered in Roman numerals. Lee thought J. P. Morgan was the private collector with the largest number, three. Folger actually then owned six.

Title page of Sidney Lee’s 1901 Census of Shakespeare’s First Folio

When he read through his copy of the Census—preserved in the Folger Shakespeare Library vault—Folger wrote comments and corrections in the margins of 23 entries. He noted the date of copies he had personally examined. He corrected the size of a Folio leaf to one-sixteenth of an inch. Lee’s updated Census of May 1906 included 172 copies. Lee wrote that Folger owned 8 copies, whereas by then he owned 23. In 1924, Lee estimated that Folger owned 35 copies; Folger had acquired 57. Writing in 1931 after both men’s death, Folger’s primary bookseller, Abraham Rosenbach of Philadelphia, stated, “Mr. Folger owned at least 24 copies not mentioned in Sir Sidney Lee’s Census.”  Today the Folger Shakespeare Library boasts 82 copies of the First Folio, all obtained by the Folgers.

In his presidential address before the Shakespeare Society of London in 1923, after deploring the loss of First Folios and their steady absorption by American collectors, Sidney Lee said: ”There was one collector in America who had developed a most extraordinary passion of First Folios. This man, Mr. Folger, who acquired the Burdett-Coutts copy, had the distinction of possessing thirty-five copies. I wrote him a few years ago asking him particulars about one of his copies. He replied that his books were in packing cases in his cellar and that there was not much likelihood of their being quickly released. He seemed to think First Folios ought to be put in bins in his cellar, like first vintages.” The audience laughed.

Lee and Folger shared common intentions as choice for final resting place. Lee’s ashes lie in the General Cemetery at Stratford-upon-Avon. Folger had his ashes placed in the Folger Shakespeare Library reading room in an urn behind a bronze plaque under a replica of Shakespeare’s bust in the Holy Trinity Church.

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.

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