One of the more extraordinary figures in the art world of the early nineteenth century was not really an artist in the true sense of that word. He was not an imaginative ‘creator’ of art, nevertheless in the annals of the British Museum, where he worked for much of his life, John Harris, in the words of a contemporary, was ‘ probably unrivalled ‘ in the curious field in which he chose to work. Harris was a ‘facsimile artist ‘, which meant that today he would be classed as a ‘conservator ‘. At the British Museum his job was to repair or replace sections of books where pages were missing or damaged and in this he was so expert that contemporary reports state that his facsimile work was entirely indistinguishable from the original’.
In his book conservation activity Harris worked almost entirely in pen and ink. He would trace the piece of missing text from another copy of the same book and apply the tracing onto old paper using a pen and black ink. Once completed, the facsimile text would be incorporated into the damaged book. Whole pages were sometimes replaced this way and although Harris signed his work ‘ by I.H. junr. ‘ it has fooled some scholars.
Harris’s accomplishments began a fashion for such facsimile work in the nineteenth century’s bibliomania. When such exacting work became too difficult for Harris, his son replaced him as a facsimile artist at the British Museum. But there were other very skilful artists who were doing similar work. The current exhibition on ‘ Fakes and Forgeries ‘ at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the USA features a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton in which sixteen pages of missing text were replaced in facsimile, probably by the printer and bibliographer William Blades, who had carefully studied Caxton’s typefaces.
In his very informative Book Collecting (1892) J. H. Slater cautions dealers and collectors alike to be aware that some very old and valuable printed books ( presumably he is thinking of incunabula) might contain examples of facsimile work that could be so accurate that a strong glass might be needed to detect it. Today, the tendency is to denigrate any facsimile work as a defect rather than an enhancement. Most dealers and collectors would prefer a damaged book to remain as it is.
R. M. Healey