Explaining and Illustrating a Folio

An informal definition of the word

Folio has a number of meanings. Throughout this site I concentrate on just one meaning ~ a single sheet of paper that has been folded ~ just once ~ to form a mini book ~ of four pages ~ two leaves ~ one sheet [115136].

There are other meanings ~ mentioned below. Hence the need for me to avoid confusion by describing the paragraph above. My 'folded sheet' descriptor, above, does not have any other simple, one word, to explain it. That is why I am clarifiying my use of it throughout the rest of this site.

The folio is the main element to the whole history of codex-style bookbinding [125223].

Other meanings attached to the word folio are normally clear from the context, but they can also lead to misunderstandings ~ always something to be avoided.

A folio is understood by some people to mean a single sheet of paper, or a leaf. For some the leaf has to be numbered in order to quaify as a folio.

A folio is sometimes interpreted as a large book. (As in Shakespeare's plays. A quote from a past Christie's Auction Catalogue lists the following item ~ 'The First Folio # 1623 ~ contains 36 plays, 18 of which had not previously been printed, and which would otherwise have been lost forever.' Their estimate of the value of a similar book was £1million.)

Sometimes a folio might refer to one half of a sheet once it has been cut into two pieces.

The word portfolio is sometimes shortened to folio, because of the folded V-shape of the covers.

I believe a folio can also mean a bundle of accounts or a particular legal document ~ the characteristic being that just one number refers to the whole thing ~ which maybe has four pages ~ or not. (As, maybe, 'see folio 23ff'.) I am not prepared to get entangled with either the accountancy or legal professions, but would as always, be glad to share any knowledgeable and reliable information.


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Similarly today, ownership of the four Folios is considered the Holy Grail of book collecting. Without the First Folio 18 plays would have been lost forever, including: Macbeth, The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, Winter’s Tale, King John, Henry VI part I, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline. Also from the remarkable Shuckburgh Collection and appearing on the market for the first time in over two centuries are the Third Folio which was published in 1664 (estimate: £300,000-400,000) and the Fourth Folio which was published in 1685 (estimate: £15,000-20,000). The Third Folio includes Pericles for the first time and is beautifully illustrated with Shakespeare’s iconic portrait by English engraver Martin Droeshout. It is rarer than the Second Folio, due to copies being lost in the Great Fire of London (2-5 September, 1666), and the present copy is in very fine condition. The First Folio was a commercial success and was followed only nine years later by the Second Folio, published in 1632 and providing a page-by-page reprint of the First. The present copy of the Second Folio also contains the iconic portrait of Shakespeare by Droeshout (estimate: £180,000-250,000). The Second Folio is celebrated as containing the first appearance in print of John Milton, whose epitaph on Shakespeare is included.