Shakespeare’s scholar tramp
Hollingbury Copse is a pleasant suburban cul-de-sac on the northern outskirts of Brighton, but nothing remains of the curious property that once stood here, and was the first to have this address. It was built amid dense woodland in the late 1870s by the celebrated Shakespearean scholar and collector James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps. The views across the downs and out over the Channel were splendid, but the house itself was not the commodious sort of residence one might envisage for this eminent if eccentric Victorian. It was not really a house at all, but a rambling spread of single-storey timber buildings, roofed with galvanised iron and connected by wooden corridors. An early visitor likened it to a squatters’ camp in South Africa, but with time it mellowed. An American journalist, Rose Ewell Reynolds, who saw it in 1887, thought it very “picturesque” – it was “simply a collection of bungalows bought ready-made in London, but grouped as they were they made a most comfortable home”. They had “criss-cross timbering on the outside”, which reminded her of the “quaint little houses” she had seen in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Halliwell-Phillipps called it his “rustic wigwam” or – with a characteristically dreadful pun – his “Hutt-entot village”. He lived here for the last 12 years of his life, breezily describing himself as a “retired old lunatic” and a “queer recluse” with “a fancy for doing as he likes without caring a button for public opinion”, though these bluff disclaimers belie the intense productiveness of this late period at Hollingbury Copse.
When he moved here in 1877, in his late 50s, he was at a low ebb. He was suffering from migraines and depression, was drinking heavily, and was dependent on opiate sleeping-draughts. His wife Henrietta, an invalid for many years after a riding accident, was in terminal decline and would die in a nursing home in 1879. He was exhausted by the squabbles and snobberies of the Victorian scholarly world, and felt his prodigious energies as a writer and researcher seeping away. Hollingbury was his escape from it all, indeed he came here under doctor’s orders. A photograph (above) shows him at this time: a big, grey-bearded man in a crumpled suit and old-fashioned ribbon-tie. He is posed in profile, and he is thumbing his nose. A handwritten caption below reads: “My reply to the idiots who ask me to resume literary studies.” But it seems the medicine worked, and under this regime of sylvan seclusion and bracing sea-air – not to mention a young and by all accounts devoted second wife – he was soon back in business, in the study which he referred to simply as his “workshop”.
In his log-cabin retreat Halliwell-Phillipps kept, and obsessively curated, his huge collection of “Shakespearean rarities”. This consisted of “about fifteen hundred separate articles” – a cornucopia of manuscript papers and parchments, early quarto editions, play-bills, portraits, maps and curios carved from the sacred mulberry tree. It furnished, he believed, “more record and artistic evidences connected with the personal history of the Great Dramatist than are to be found in any other of the world’s libraries”. The cataloguing of this collection was one of the unfinished labours of these years. The first thin handbook, A Rough List of the Shakespearean Rarities at Hollingbury Copse, appeared in 1881. It was followed by the Brief List of a Selected Portion of the Shakespeare Rarities that are preserved in the Rustic Wigwam at Hollingbury Copse (1886), in which he describes 47 items kept in his study, and one prize possession – the unretouched “first state” of the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare – on display in the dining room. The last and fullest catalogue, the Calendar of the Shakespearean Rarities (1887), itemises some 800 pieces, little more than half the collection. In the preface to the Calendar he confronts the probability of non-completion with jocular bravado: “As our Brighton whip in the old days of coaching used to say, ‘Tempus will fudgit’, and it has fudgited with me until there is but a little working slice of it left.” These catalogues were privately printed at Brighton, in very limited runs, and have become slight rarities in themselves.
Halliwell-Phillipps had been collecting books and manucripts since his teens – his first interests were scientific and medieval: the Shakespeare obsession came later. He also frequently sold objects when money was tight: “bookcase full after bookcase full”, he wrote ruefully, “were disposed of under the vibrations of the auctioneer’s hammer”. The Sotheby’s catalogues are full of him. A sale in the summer of 1857 earned him over £1,000. Among its treasures were the original mortgage-deed on Shakespeare’s house in Blackfriars, signed by the poet on a pendant strip of parchment (sold to the British Museum for £315), and Shakespearean first editions such as the 1609 Sonnets (£154) and the 1600 quarto of Henry IV, part 2 (£100); as well as much trivial memorabilia such as “the heel of the shoe kicked off by Mrs Siddons in throwing back her velvet train whilst performing the part of Constance in King John”.
A slightly dodgy air of opportunism and profiteering hangs over his dealings. His reputation was nearly ruined in 1845 when he was accused of having stolen and subsequently sold some rare scientific codices from the library of Trinity, Cambridge, his old university. They had gone missing some eight years previously, when he was an undergraduate there. The case against him was circumstantial and did not get to court, but for a while the newspapers covered it, and even the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (a trustee of the British Museum, which had bought the codices) found himself embroiled. According to the bibliographical investigator Arthur Freeman (whose book about the forgeries of John Payne Collier runs to over 1,000 pages) Halliwell-Phillipps’s guilt “now seems more likely than not … [His] book-trading behaviour was not always as scrupulous as his scholarship”. Other darker allegations of theft – including a 1603 quarto edition of Hamlet, one of only two copies then known to exist – remain unproven.
He is also notorious for his pragmatic habits as a bibliophile. By today’s standards of book conservation he belongs to the era of the big-game hunter. In pursuit of a “perfect copy” of an old book – there are many thus described in the Hollingbury collection – his favourite tools were a stout pair of scissors and a paste-pot, used to supply missing or defective pages in one copy by mutilating another. Other pages, sometimes whole chapters, would be “exported” to his gigantic collection of scrapbooks. In extenuation one might say there were a lot more old books around then, and imperfect copies were considered fair game. Also, the available technologies for copying texts – autotypes, collotypes, photogelatins etc – were expensive. The labour of manual transcription was the bottom-line of his titanic researches, and resorting to the cut-and-paste option is understandable.