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2. John Harris and the facsimile pages

John Harris the Pen-and-Ink Facsimilist
by Toshiyuki Takamiya, Keio University

A Harris facsimile
One of John Harris's facsimile pages, folio 224 verso (signature ii2 verso)

Facsimiles of pages missing from printed books were often inserted in the 19th century to make up for missing original leaves. Most facsimilists were anonymous, and remain unidentified to this day. Only one has reached a degree of fame so that, with greater or lesser justification, the phrase ‘facsimiles by Harris’ frequently occurs in library and sale catalogues of rare and early printed books. Nevertheless, not very much is known about ‘Harris’.

John Harris was a master of the short-lived art of pen-and-ink facsimile, which flourished during the 19th-century 'bibliomania' - a term coined by Thomas F. Dibdin for a book which he published in 1809. Dibdin encouraged a passion for books among rich collectors in England and Scotland who acquired incunables and other rare books on an unprecedented scale. Many collectors of the period, not happy with the imperfect condition of a book for which they had paid a large sum of money, wanted to have missing pages supplied in facsimile. Thus the way was paved for Harris to emerge as a facsimile artist of unparalleled skill.

There were actually three John Harrises, but the one with whom we are now concerned was the second, and the most famous. He was born on 17 November 1791, in Kensington, into an artistic family. In 1811 John was reputedly introduced to Henry Fuseli, the Swiss artist, and was admitted to the Royal Academy schools as a student specialising in miniature portraits, but he soon developed an interest in producing facsimiles of early typographical pages and woodcuts.

From 1815 until about 1820 Harris worked for John Whittaker, a printer and bookbinder. Harris recollected in 1851: ‘It was about the year 1815 that I was first employed by the late Mr John Whittaker, of Westminster, an eminent bookbinder at that period; and I believe the idea of having ancient books of the early printers, &c., perfected by fac-similes, was suggested to him by the late Earl Spencer, for whom many books were so done; and numerous specimens are preserved of some of the rarest productions of the press in the library of Althorpe’ (and can be seen today at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester.

About the time of his marriage in 1820 his independent work for Earl Spencer may have given him the idea of leaving Whittaker’s firm to find other employment as a facsimilist. Janet Ing Freeman, in her article in the Missing Persons volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, identifies him with the British Museum reading room attendant of that name, who started work there in 1821. This suggests a much deeper association with the Museum than as just a facsimilist, although there is no extant record to suggest that he was employed on a full time basis.

Harris went blind in 1857 and died impoverished in December 1873. His son, John Alfred Harris, for a time continued his father’s business of supplying facsimiles.

The fame of Harris’s skill in the British Museum was attested by Robert Cowtan, for many years an assistant in the Department of Printed Books and a personal friend. Cowtan wrote in his Memories of the British Museum published in 1872:

Mr Harris is not so much distinguished as an artist as he is famous for his wonderful facsimile reproductions of early wood-engraving and block-printing to supply deficiencies in imperfect books. In this curious art he is probably unrivalled, and the specimens that he has produced after Faust [sic], Schoeffer, Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, Pynson, and other early printers, are marvelous and unique. Some of the handsomest and rarest volumes in the libraries of Lord Spencer, Mr Grenville, the British Musuem, and other collections, have been made complete by the ‘cunning’ of his ‘right hand’; and some of the leaves that he has supplied are so perfectly done that, after a few years, he has himself puzzled to distinguish his own work from the original, so perfect has the fac-simile been, both in paper and typography.

Antonio Panizzi, then Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, was keen on the idea that imperfect copies of important books in the Museum should be made good with facsimiles, regarding it as part of his duty to provide books to readers in a perfect or perfected condition. He persuaded the Museum Trustees that £40 or £50 over three years would enable Harris to supply facsimiles to complete all the copies of important books that had been detected as imperfect.

Cowtan tells of an amusing episode at this time in which Panizzi and two other librarians, failing to detect facsimiles in one of the perfected books, called in Harris to point out the leaves he had supplied; and it was only after considerable examination that he was able to detect them. Following this incident, on 8 July 1843, Panizzi persuaded the trustees of the Musuem to order that Harris in future sign any leaf he recreated with the formula, ‘This is by J.H.—A.P.’ One can also encounter other signatures such as ‘F.S. by I.H.’, ‘by H’, and ‘Harris jur.’ used on facsimiles. His faint signature sometimes escaped the notice even of the most experienced eye, as in the case of Harris’s facsimile of Caxton’s device in the Doctrinale of Sapience (IB.55129) which for many years was reproduced by the British Museum as genuine, despite the presence of his minute signature in the bottom line. This oversight resulted in the distorted dating of Caxton’s later work which depended on progressive damage to that line. It should be emphasized that Harris’s intention of making facsimiles was entirely innocent and honourable.

Few would remain unimpressed by the highly deceptive quality of Harris’s facsimile reproduction, and one might well wonder how he did the work. Fortunately, when he exhibited his facsimiles at the Great Exhibition in 1851, he made a brief sketch of his technique, which was printed in the 1852 Reports of the Juries. Here he described four methods of making facsimiles in which he was involved from time to time. While Harris claimed to have used a method of making tracings from the originals using soft ink, transferring this to thin paper and then retransferring the image to the facsimile itself, he apparently did not, according to Bernard Middleton, follow the endeavour of Whittaker, his first employer, of having replicas of early founts of type engraved or cut.

Dr Lotte Hellinga has detected a number of copies of early printed editions, particularly English incunables, now in the British Library, in which missing leaves have been supplied in pen-and-ink facsimiles by John Harris and other facsimilists. Harris made good the following British Library copies by Caxton: Dicts and Saying I (IB.55005), Golden Legend I (C.11.d.8), Royal Book (C.10.b.22), Doctrinal of Sapience (IB.55129) and Christine de Pisan, Fayts (C.10.b.11). The Grenville copy of the second edition of Canterbury Tales (IB.55094), bequeathed to the British Museum in 1846, has the missing leaves (i7; p1; all ii; A1; B2-3; all K; L3-4)<each linked to the appropriate folio> supplied in facsimile by Harris. Even on digital images, only a careful examination of the letters, paper and impression will betray them as Harris’s reproduction.

Tell me more:


  Robert Cowtan, Memories of the British Museum (London, 1872)
  Janet Ing Freeman, 'John Harris 1791-1873', Dictionary of National Biography: missing persons, edited by C.S. Nicholls, (Oxford, 1993)
  Barry Gaines, 'A Forgotten Artist: John Harris and the Rylands Copy of Caxton's Edition of Malory'
  Horst Buzellos, 'Köln und England 1468-1509'
  P. R. Harris, A history of the British Museum Library 1753-1973 (London, 1998).
  Catalogue of Books printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum (Library), vol. xi., ed. Lotte Hellinga, forthcoming.
  Fake? The Art of Deception, edited by Mark Jones, (London: British Museum, 1990) with a contribution by Nicolas Barker on John Harris pp. 223-24
  Bernard C. Middleton, 'Facsimile Printing for Antiquarian Books
  [William Roberts], 'John Harris, Facsimilist'
  Philip J. Weimerskirch, 'John Harris, Sr., 1767-1832: A Memoir by his son'
1. Descriptions of the BL copies (PDF format)
2. John Harris and the facsimile pages
3. The digitisation - Keio University
4. Why compare the copies?

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