A loose gathering in a Third Folio

Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies was published in a folio edition in 1623, followed by a 1632 edition. By 1664, a third folio had been published. It is the rarest of all four seventeenth-century Shakespeare folios, because copies in stock are thought to have been lost during the Great Fire of London in 1666. Senate House Library, University of London, has three copies of the Third Folio, one of which is still in its seventeenth-century binding. It is one of only two of the eleven seventeenth-century folio editions of Shakespeare in the Library that have not been washed, pressed, trimmed and sumptuously bound in a fine binding with full goatskin and gilt finishing, leaving little trace of their history. The wear and tear on this copy shows it has had much use. Sewn on six single cords, the basic structure has withstood this use well. The materials, however, show the impact of the passing years with spills, smudges, abrasions, tears and decay.

A Third Folio

Third Folio

The sewing is still strong but the endbands are either missing or damaged, causing the sewing to be slightly loose at the tail. The leather has some degradation and wear, with losses at the head and tail caps. Most of the textblock is in very good condition, but some of the leaves are in a poor state.

B Frontispiece


Some pages have been stained, including in Hamlet, where the reader learns of another visit from Hamlet’s father’s ghost.


A stained page

However, it is in the tragedy of King Lear where most damage has occurred. The paper has torn, so the central folio has come adrift. But, fortunately, all was not lost as it remained loose within the book. The now-protruding edges took a lot of wear and tear, and are folded, worn and torn. The gutter has creases and tears running horizontally across the fold.

The torn paper where the sewing thread lay lines up with the holes in the folio, so we can be reasonably certain it does belong to this copy. And, judging by the damage, it remained loose but in position for quite a while, until one reader reached for a pin or four to secure it to its gathering.

Pins were the staples of their day, holding the loose leaves of archives together; but in my experience, they are found less often in books. Pins were generally made from strips cut from sheet metal brass with a low lead content. The strips were drawn through a drawplate with increasingly smaller holes, pushing the strip to a tight circle. The shaft wire was cut and one end was tapered, whilst a thicker wire was twisted into a spiral. From this, two turns were cut and either stamped or stuck with a tin-rich flux onto the head. The final pin was coated in tin.

D Folio with damage

Four pins ‘sewing’ a folio

Conservation with pins is not to be recommended, but at least the folio remains in place. There is, of course, collateral damage including creases, tears and stains.

The pin at the head is pinned to the previous leaf, halfway up the gutter to the left of the spine fold, stressing the leaf when it opens; but, surprisingly, the leaf has not torn at that point. It is, however, crumpled. Both the middle leaves are pinned in towards the spine, holding them to the book with one pin prick. There are no other pin holes visible, yet they have stayed in place. The tail pin pierces the gutter to the left of the fold but does not pierce the preceding leaf.

F Pinned to previous leaf

Head pin, ‘side-piercing’

It is this tail pin, which does not secure the folio, that has done the most damage. It pierces the detached folio five times, and the paper has creased as the book has been opened and closed. The tin plating has broken, allowing the copper alloy of the pin to degrade and stain the paper.


Tail pin

Further on in the book, from Othello to Anthony and Cleopatra, a larger pin has been buried deep into the gutter, presumably holding loose leaves in place. The pinhead has abraded the next leaf, but we think it is unlikely this will get any worse.

Which brings us to the 21st century. Do we conserve the folio and retain the pins in situ? Or remove them and, like many an archive in the past, place them into a polyester sleeve, recorded and housed with the item?

The damage which poses the greatest risk is the thin, worn, discoloured and torn edges. Three pins are holding the folio in place, and the top and bottom pins could cause more tears and creases when the book is opened and closed. It would be possible to conserve the edges in situ. However, the tears across the spine fold and the creases near the pins would be more difficult to access.

Senate House Library holds three copies of this edition, so this one does not have to be used very often. But again, it does not have the significance of the Bodleian’s original First Folio, which was the subject of the Current Solutions for Mutual Issues conference paper by Nicole Gilroy and Julie Sommerfeldt, ‘Outrageous Fortune: the Conservation of Bodleian’s First Folio’. Nor is its damage similar to flaws from the papermaking process that add to our knowledge of book history, which Andrew Honey’s research on the First Folio revealed in his March 2017 Icon Book & Paper Group talk, ‘Torn, wrinkled, stained and otherwise naughty sheets’.

G A pin _yields to the theft_

Pin ‘yields to theft’

In the end, we decided to record and remove the four pins that held the damaged folio in place and box them with the book. In this way, the head and tail pins no longer posed a risk of tearing, and the tears across the spine fold could be repaired.

The pin in Anthony and Cleopatra was left in place because it was unlikely to cause more damage.

I Large and small pin

A large and a small pin

The edges and spine tears were re-enforced with various weights and colours of Japanese paper before the folio was returned to the volume with three V guards.

J After conservation

After paper conservation

For further reading on pins, please see Dated and datable pins from the Bodleian collections.

Angela Craft trained in Hand Bookbinding and Restoration at Camberwell College, London in 1980. She trained and worked at the National Archives, London, initially as an archive conservator and later as a book conservator. Angela has worked as book and preventive conservator at Senate House Library, University of London since 2005.

She has been an intern at Trinity College, Dublin and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and had a mid-career internship at West Dean College with Chris Clarkson and David Dorning. She studied for an MA in the History of the Book at the University of London. She has been able to develop her interest in the history of bindings.

Angela has also been a visiting tutor at Camberwell College, London and an external assessor at West Dean College, Sussex. She is a PACR pathway mentor for the Institute of Conservation.

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