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John Wolfson

John Wolfson

A Collection for All Time

John Wolfson’s Bequest to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

John Wolfson was born in Manhattan, the son of a businessman and a bookish mother. The family moved to Westchester on the mainland of New York when he was eight years old. ‘My father was a very successful businessman and he had little interest in learning. Whenever I made a literary or historical allusion, he got angry. My mother had worked in the book department of a large store in Pittsburgh before she was married. It had a rare books section, and my mother would talk to me about her work.’  Wolfson was educated at Harvard, where he majored in English. He also attended Yale School of Drama, and went to Columbia Business School after the death of his father died. It was not until he came into a bit of money from his father's estate in 1970 that he was able to devote himself entirely to work as a collector, playwright and historian of the theatre. 

As a young man, Wolfson worked as a wardrobe assistant for a touring production of Much Ado About Nothing with John Gielgud in 1960. As a playwright he won a Barrymore Award in 2005 for his Lives of Bosie, a series of conversations between the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas and his younger self. In 2016 The Inn at Lydda was performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which forms part of Shakespeare’s Globe. Wolfson wrote the play in Jacobean style, and the plot is based on an apocryphal reference to a meeting between Tiberius Caesar and the risen Christ. During his long association with the stage, Wolfson has met many of the great Shakespearean actors, including Mark Rylance who played Prince Hal in Henry V, the first play to be performed when Shakespeare’s Globe opened in June 1997. In the same year, Wolfson was invited to speak at Bernard Quaritch’s sesquicentenary party.  This was also the twenty-fifth anniversary of Wolfson’s first contact with the firm and with Nicholas Poole-Wilson, who sold him his copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare. ‘It was in the summer of 1976 when Nicholas was visiting New York and every other book collector was out of town.’  

Sidney Lee’s 1902 census of extant copies of the First Folio lists the owner of Wolfson’s copy as Frederick Haines, a trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Haines left the volume to his eldest son, who in turn left it to his second daughter, Gladys Haines. She approached a bookseller in Brighton to sell it on her behalf, and he passed it to Quaritch.  After Wolfson bought it, he had it restored and rebound by Bernard Middleton in brown goatskin. Today it is shelved with a leather folder containing twelve variant leaves from the First Folio, which are in states other than those in the bound volume. Wolfson’s first experience of the First Folio dates from his purchase of a single leaf from Maggs in 1972 for £5, which he later gave as a present to Laurence Olivier. In 1973, Poole-Wilson offered Wolfson a collection of around 200 leaves from the First Folio. Wolfson offered some of the best First Folio leaves to his friend Alan Thomas, who sold them through his meticulously researched catalogues.  Six years later Arthur Freeman sold Wolfson a number of leaves from the Second, Third and Fourth Folios, which had belonged to a bookseller named Spenser.   

John Carter famously described making up a book by the addition of leaves from another copy as ‘faking up’, and valid grounds for divorce between buyer and seller. He does however allow for mitigating circumstances for books of outstanding rarity, age and importance, as long as the substituted leaves are clearly identified. By the end of the 1970s, Wolfson’s stock of leaves from all four of the 17th century Folios not only helped to finance his book collecting, but   brought him into contact with some of the greatest booksellers of his generation.  Wolfson first met Hans Kraus at a dinner at the Grolier Club, where he was introduced as a collector of early English drama. ‘Kraus asked me how many Shakespeare Quartos I owned - a pretty vicious question to ask a young collector, given the rarity of those books and their ephemeral nature.  I told him that I only owned Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, the two plays that are not in the First Folio.  That was the end of that conversation.’  At the other extreme, there was John Fleming, Rosenbach's successor, who had a reputation for encouraging young collectors. Wolfson repaid his friendship by giving him the two leaves that were missing from Fleming’s copy of the Fourth Folio.

Since buying his copy of the First Folio, Wolfson has maintained a purchase record of every acquisition in his collection of early English drama, which is unrivalled in private hands.  His First Folio was later joined by copies of the Second (1632), Third (1664) and Fourth Folio (1685), the three reprintings of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in the seventeenth century.  Wolfson's collection also includes some 200 plays in Quarto, printed before the Puritans closed the London playhouses in 1642, and denounced the theatre as ‘the bellows to blow the coals of lust’.

John Wolfson is not – nor does he pretend to be - a connoisseur collector. He is a scholar who studies his books and writes and lectures about them. The condition might not always appeal to trophy-hunters, but Wolfson has often found gold where others see only dross. In an age of digital surrogates, Wolfson believes   that there is no substitute for handling the original physical object. The New York Public Library owns five copies of the First Folio, but if you ask to see them, you are likely to be shown a facsimile or directed to Early English Books Online. 'When a member of the library's rare book room told me that I could see a copy of the book that I was asking for online, I said to the librarian, “What are you doing here?”' For the serious scholar, it’s essential to see the actual book, particularly as EEBO files are often poor quality as they are based on old microfilm. ‘At the moment I’m working on a book on Shakespeare’s least performed plays. There are hundreds or thousands of books on the popular plays, but very little has been written on King John, Henry VI, Part I, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won.  What they have in common is the lack of much background information that is necessary for a modern audience.  Very often entire scenes, required for the development of the plot, are missing.’  This is particularly apparent in King John, but an Elizabethan audience might have been more familiar with The Troublesome Reign of King John, an earlier play that Shakespeare took as his source.  It was published anonymously in 1591.  

Wolfson feels that there is still much work to be done on the relationship between the plays and the sources from which they came. ‘If you open a critical edition of Shakespeare, you will find the derivation of every word and the precise meaning of each phrase in the plays, but very little on the meaning of each scene.’ Wolfson likes to buy copies of books that Shakespeare could have owned or consulted for his plots, of which a number derived from sixteenth-century collections of Italian and French short stories.  All originality is relative; every thinker is retrospective, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay on Shakespeare in Representative Men inspired Henry Folger to begin his collection. Emerson argues that it is no longer possible to say who wrote what first, as the stories have been the property of the theatre for so long, and so many ‘rising geniuses’ have enlarged or altered them.  He went on to say, ‘Shakespeare knew that tradition supplies a better fable than any invention can. If he lost any credit of design, he augmented his resources; and, at that day our petulant demand for originality was not so much pressed.’

In 2004, John Wolfson was viewing a copy of the First Folio in a sale at Bloomsbury Auctions.  A member of the staff asked Wolfson if he wanted to examine it, and Wolfson said, 'No, thank you.  My copy has twenty more leaves than this one.’  'Oh’, the man said, ‘You must be John Wolfson’. It surprises Wolfson to be known on two continents because he owns a book – but it is after all the most important work in the English language. Without the First Folio, we would not have Ben Jonson’s prefatory poem describing Shakespeare as a writer ‘not of an age but for all time’. We wouldn’t have the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, considered one of the few that was approved by those who knew him. There would be no division of the plays into comedies, histories and tragedies, and we wouldn’t have The Tempest or Twelfth Night, which were among the eighteen plays published for the first time in the First Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

Sam Wanamaker’s passionate vision to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe near its original site occupied the last twenty-five years of his extremely active life as an actor and director. Although he didn’t live to see the realisation of his great project, his daughter Zoë Wanamaker, became the first person to speak on the reconstructed stage as the Chorus in Henry V when the Globe opened in 1997. John Wolfson never met Sam Wanamaker, but he knew that his original vision for the theatre had included a library. ‘When I made a contribution to the Globe’s fund-raising campaign in 1997, I asked for the name of the librarian. The reply came back that they didn’t have one, but I should talk to Patrick Spottiswoode, who is now the Director of Globe Education. We met and had an interesting conversation about Jacobean plays. Patrick mentioned A King and No King and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. I said that I had copies of both plays.  He assumed that I was talking about modern critical editions. I invited Patrick to see my library in New York, and he invited me to give a talk at the Globe. I did and I was subsequently invited to give an annual talk, which I have done for the last twenty years.’

In 2008 John Wolfson signed an agreement to bequeath his library to the Globe at a dinner held at the British Consulate in New York. Having witnessed the break up of many collections, Wolfson wanted to find a place for all of his books and Shakespeare’s Globe was the perfect choice. ‘My collection will remain together and be used to great advantage by students, scholars and educators for generations to come.’ The bequest of the John Wolfson Rare Book Collection will one day join the Globe’s existing library. As the Globe receives no public subsidy, Project Prospero was launched in 2016 to raise the funds required to build the new library. Wolfson plans to donate 100 books from his collection to mark the opening of the library.  For the time being, the library is kept in Wolfson’s brownstone in Manhattan in a room decorated with wallpaper similar to that in the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace. He holds the post of Honorary Curator of Rare Books at Shakespeare’s Globe, and is a frequent visitor to London, where he is a member of the Athenaeum. During a reception at the club, a bishop called him ‘Mr Wilson’.  He corrected the bishop and said, ‘ “There are only two men in history who have had colleges named after them in both Oxford and Cambridge. One is Jesus Christ and the other is Wolfson.” This would not have been exactly true – St Edmund and St John have Oxbridge colleges named after them – but I wanted to see how the bishop would take it.’ The John Wolfson Rare Book Collection at Shakespeare’s Globe will ensure that his name is never forgotten, and indeed that it is remembered with gratitude.  

This article first appeared in The Book Collector Spring 2020





John Wolfson


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