Shakespeare First Folio Discovered on Isle of Bute, in Time for an Anniversary



The newly discovered Shakespeare First Folio is bound in three volumes.

Just in time for the global commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a stately home on a small Scottish island is announcing a surprise party gift: the unveiling of a previously unknown First Folio.

The book, owned by the seventh Marquess of Bute, Johnny Dumfries, had been shelved in the library at Mount Stuart House, an enormous Gothic revival pile and tourist attraction on the Isle of Bute, in the Firth of Clyde, about 60 miles west of Glasgow.

“Finding it right now is almost crazy,” said Emma Smith, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Oxford who authenticated the Folio during a visit to the house in September. Discovering a new First Folio, she added, is “like spotting a panda.”

The First Folio, published in 1623 — seven years after Shakespeare’s death — in an edition of roughly 750, contains 36 of his plays, including 18 that had not been printed in his lifetime. The announcement of the Scottish copy, which goes on public display at Mount Stuart on Thursday, brings the number of known surviving First Folios to 234.

While the copy has yet to be examined by the broader scholarly world, Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who authenticated a First Folio found in northern France in 2014, called Ms. Smith’s research, which is to be published on Thursday in London in The Times Literary Supplement, convincing.

“I think this is absolutely the real deal,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “All the pieces fall into place.”

The copy in Scotland was not, strictly speaking, totally unknown. It had been listed in the typed catalog of the Bute family library as early as 1896, but its existence seems never to have been made public, even after a census of First Folios in 1902 by the scholar Sidney Lee led more than one millionaire to complain that his prize treasure had not been listed.

Mount Stuart, which is owned by a charitable trust, has recently been trying to assemble a full catalog of its substantial library and art collection, both to attract visitors and to make the holdings accessible to researchers. Alice Martin, the director of collections, said she had pulled the Folio, which is bound in three separate volumes, off the shelf at some point last year.

At first glance, she said, the Folio is far from the most arresting item at the house, which also has paintings by Titian and Veronese, a garter presented by King George III to the third earl of Bute (the first Scottish prime minister of Britain) and, perhaps more prosaically, the world’s first heated indoor swimming pool.

“You get goose bumps when you read about the First Folio, but it’s sort of unassuming when you see it,” Ms. Martin said.

Ms. Smith, the author of “Shakespeare’s First Folio: The Making of an Iconic Book,” a forthcoming study of the Folio’s migration around the world, said that when Mount Stuart first contacted her, she was skeptical. But after examining the book, as well as documentation in the house’s archives, she identified it as the copy long known to have belonged to Isaac Reed, an 18th-century editor of Shakespeare’s works.

It has extra pages in its binding — presumably for adding illustrations, a common 18th-century practice — and various markings by Reed and others.

“Books like this are like ‘CSI’ crime scenes,” Ms. Smith said. “They carry tiny bits of evidence about the people who used them.”

First Folios are among the world’s most sought-after and valuable books. Christie’s recently announced that it was selling what it calls a previously unrecorded First Folio from a “discreet and off-the-radar” private collection, valued at $1.1 million to $1.7 million.

The Scottish copy, Ms. Martin said, along with the rest of the house’s collection, is the personal property of Mr. Dumfries, a former Formula One driver who is descended from Robert the Bruce, the medieval hero of Scottish independence. She said it would not be sold and would remain on the island, which has a population of around 6,500.

“For us, it’s important that this is the Bute Folio, not the Mount Stuart Folio,” Ms. Martin said. “We’re hoping it’s something the whole island can rally around and be proud of.”

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