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Rare book enthusiasts went to the Penrith Museum of Printing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the printing of the original folio of comedies, histories, and tragedies – the plays – by Shakespeare.

Bonding over old and rare books at Penrith Museum: Stephen Hannan (left) and Patrick Howard.
Bonding over old and rare books at Penrith Museum of Print: Stephen Hannan (left) and Patrick Howard.

Celebrating the importance of books, publishing, book production and collecting, the Sydney Rare Book Week programme, organised by the State Library of NSW, included a visit to the Museum to witness the workings of letterpress printing, the technology used to print the first folios in 1623. A good turnout on a blustery overcast morning proved the enduring attraction of the revitalised museum.

The Penrith event featured a presentation by Andy McCourt on ‘The two books that changed the world’ – the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s folio. He took the audience through the publishing process of the two volumes printed 100 years apart.

Among the technical details of how the folio printing was completed, he detailed how the original ‘imperial’ B2 size sheet of French rag paper, was folded initially into folio size, before being printed two up. The first folio gathered 36 of Shakespeare's plays, many of which had never being collected or printed. It was prepared by two of Shakespeare's friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, seven years after his death.

McCourt was able to indicate a replica of the ‘common press’, part of the Museum’s collection, the wooden letter press that produced that type of print. Along with an extensive range of wooden and metal letterpress fonts, it’s a living relic of a bygone era that can still print today. As Bob Lockley, president of the Museum pointed out, while technology changes almost daily now, the ‘common press’ lasted 300 years and letterpress itself was still printing newspapers in Australia – the Dorrigo Express – up to few months ago.

A fine array of rare books, many from the State Library, was curated by Stephen Hannan, scion of the renowned printing family, along with Stefan Peters, who showcased some of his own collection. Early Australian books and old bibles reinforced the permanence of print in stark contrast to todays’ ephemeral digital files.

The 750 copies of the first Shakespeare folio took 18 months to laboriously print, sheet by hand-inserted sheet, and of those 233 are still surviving. The last one discovered sold at Christies for $10m. According to McCourt, there were 180 copies of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in Latin, of which 45 survive. He put a price of US$35m on another, if it ever appeared.

In an entertaining presentation he claimed that Shakespeare introduced 1700 words into the English language, at a time when an agricultural labourer had a vocabulary of a mere 300 words. There is little doubt then that if we are such stuff as dreams are made on, to quote the Bard, at least the printed word will bear witness "gainst death and all oblivious enmity that wears this world out to the ending doom".


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