In all of last week's discussions about the possible sale of the Sterling Folios from the University of London, there wasn't all that much written about the actual books themselves. So, curious, I turned to Anthony James West's First Folio census (OUP, 2003) to see what he has to say about the volumes.
As one might expect, the Sterling Folios have quite a backstory, even if we don't know too much about their early life. The four volumes are uniformly bound, by the English binder James Hayday, in dark blue goatskin (West, I, 117; II, 101), with gilt edges (the First Folio also contains marbling beneath the gilt).
West notes of the First Folio (in a comment which extends to the other three) "The volume is notable both for its early migration to America and for its repatriation." This set of the four folios was purchased by Francis Calley Gray of Boston (1790-1859) around 1836, and was perhaps the first full set of Shakespeare folios to cross the Atlantic. Gray (Harvard, 1809) was the son of prominent Boston merchant William Gray, and went to Russia with John Quincy Adams in 1809 as a private secretary (William Gray also happened to own the ship, the Horace, on which JQA & Co. sailed).
Upon his return to America Gray was admitted to the bar and became a prominent lawyer, orator, poet, and art collector. His 1815 visit with George Ticknor to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello is well known (for a bit on this, see here), and he left an impressive collection of engravings to Harvard (see the catalog), "together with a choice library of works on art, and several valuable illustrated books, among them Rosellini's Monumenti dell' Egitto and Audubon's Birds and Quadrupeds of America" (Gray had been one of several donors to Harvard's original copy of Audubon's Birds, and perhaps gave his own copy of a later edition to the Museum of Comparative Zoology).
F.C. Gray's nephew William inherited the set of Folios in 1856, and they were purchased by Miss Mary Edgecombe (sometimes Edgcumbe or Edgecumbe) Blatchford (1838-1902) of Cambridge in 1879. West writes of Miss Blatchford "She was one of the two Americans who in 1901-2 helped Sidney Lee the most in gathering information about American First Folios for his census. He acknowledged her enthusiastic work in the Census introduction (p. 17), and there is ample evidence of it in her correspondence with Lee in the Sir Sidney Lee Collection at the Birthplace Trust Records Office. She mentions in her neatly completed copy of Lee's questionnaire there that she examined her Folio with Justin Winsor" (West, II, 100). Winsor had published, in 1876, his Bibliography of the Original Quartos and Folios of Shakespeare, with Particular Reference to Copies in America.
Miss Blatchford was the eldest daughter of Edgecombe Heath Blatchford (1811-1853) and his wife Mary Ann Hubbard (1820-1864). Blatchford, an alumnus of Union College (my own alma mater), was a lawyer by profession, and the Hubbards were a prominent Boston family: Mary Ann's father Samuel was a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Mary Blatchford, who wrote the 1898 childrens' book The Story of Little Jane and Me, was a donor to many Boston-area institutions, held a proprietorship at the Boston Athenaeum (perhaps inherited from her mother), and as previously mentioned was of significant help to Sir Sidney Lee.
From Blatchford or her estate the volumes passed, it seems, to the Massachusetts General Hospital Trust, who arranged for their sale at Sotheby's London on 4 March 1935. As West notes, this re-crossing of the Atlantic did not go unnoticed, with a comment in the TLS that "the sentimentalist will hope that these four folios ill stay." They were purchased for £3,100 by the booksellers Lionel and Philip Robinson, a price mourned in the TLS as "somewhat disappointing," given that First Folios alone had previously sold for rather higher prices (the letterpress on the title page of this First Folio is in facsimile, with the portrait inlaid; the "To the Reader" leaf is also in facsimile).
The Folios were then sold for £3,500 to Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958), an American-born industrialist memorialized in one death-notice as a "millionaire socialist." The same piece continued "The industrialist-philanthropist amassed a fortune in the phonograph and recording business and became a naturalized Britain [sic] after arriving nearly penniless by cattleboat in 1903. Explaining why he had given away more than $2.8 million in Britain, the man born Louis Saul Sterling in a New York tenement, said: 'I made all my money in this country, so I guess Britain is entitled to it.'"
Sterling was known for his assistance to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, received a knighthood in 1937, and endowed the Sterling Library at the University of London in the early 1950s. The library itself was opened by Queen Elizabeth (as the University's Chancellor) in October 1956. For more on Sterling's library, see the collection overview, or this 1939 TLS piece, reprinted on the Senate House site.
See what happens when you start pulling threads? Connections abound: who would have thought this set of four folios would stand just a degree of separation or two away from John Quincy Adams, Union College, and the early days of the British recording industry?
Like all books, the Sterling Library Folios have their own stories to tell us, of the people who made them, bound them, owned them, sold them, and read them. While there are many unanswered questions about these (when were they originally brought together? Who had them bound? Who owned them prior to the 1830s?), we know much of what we do know about them thanks to the good work of Justin Winsor, Sidney Lee, and Anthony James West, assisted by Mary Edgecombe Blatchford and the countless others who helped make their censuses of the Shakespeare Folios possible. Another reminder (here are some more) that these censuses are important scholarly works, worthy of our attention and our assistance whenever possible.
NB: I couldn't find either Lee's or Winsor's Folio censuses online, which seems a shame. Though outdated now and vastly superseded by West's, their texts are still quite interesting, and it would be useful to be able to link to them. Also and as always, additions/clarifications/corrections appreciated!
[Update: Lee's census is in fact online, here. Thanks to Mitch Fraas and Sarah Werner!]