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Research to reveal story of Petworth play collection

Dr Matthew Dimmock with one of the volumes of printed plays at Petworth

University of Sussex researchers made a dramatic discovery when exploring the literary treasures of a Sussex stately home - a large collection of early printed versions of plays by Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe.

The collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas is now being assessed by the researchers, who were given access to the library collections at Petworth, West Sussex, by the National Trust, which manages the estate.

Now, as part of an ongoing collaboration between the University and the National Trust, student researchers supervised by University and National Trust experts will be exploring the collection as part of research into plays and playing at Petworth House.

They will be looking at the provenance of the plays, which may have been bought from other aristocratic collections, as well as the literary value of the plays.

To date no study has been made of these texts, which have been kept separate from the main libraries at Petworth since they passed to the National Trust in 1947 and are largely unknown.

There are also plans to have some of the plays performed at Petworth.

The 150-odd quarto texts, dating from the 1580s to the1620s, include early printed versions of Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost and King Lear, as well as lesser known works by other writers.

The leather-bound volumes would have been printed as loose-leaf works, produced in short runs and based on varying sources - ranging from bone fide copies of plays to 'pirate' versions, or parts written down from memory by actors, for example -then bound at a later date.

The research project is being led by University of Sussex lecturer Dr Matthew Dimmock and involves Professor Andrew Hadfield (an authority on the great writers of the Early Modern period), Dr Margaret Healy (Co-Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies with expertise in Renaissance literature) and Andrew Loukes, the National Trust House and Collections Manager at Petworth House.   

The work will take three years from October 2011 and is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to promote collaborative work between academics and important heritage and cultural organisations.

Other work on the Petworth library collections will focus on papers relating to the religious and political intrigues of the Reformation era and beyond, many of which could be unique documents.

The collaboration came about as a result of Dr Dimmock's research into plays of the period about the Prophet Mohammed, one manuscript for which was kept at Alnwick, the northern England home of the Earls of Northumberland.

The Earls also owned Petworth, and came to spend more time there during the religious unrest in the North during the 16th and 17th centuries. Dr Dimmock's research led him to Petworth and the realisation that the library collections were of significant scholarly interest.

Dr Dimmock says: "Exploring the floor to ceiling collections of books, I came to realise the scale of what was there. The plays alone could be one of the biggest collections of plays from the period before the publication of the first folio of Shakespeare's works in 1620."

Earlier in July the University's Centre for Early Modern Studies organised a conference focusing on the intellectual and cultural life of English Country houses, which included a visit to Petworth.

Notes for Editors

The Sussex Centre for Early Modern Studies is one of the foremost interdisciplinary institutions of its kind in Britain. Consisting of distinguished and committed academics from the School of English and Departments of History and Art History, and a thriving postgraduate community drawn from across the country and the world, the Centre covers most aspects of early modern study.

Petworth House, originally the dynastic seat of the Earls of Northumberland, is renowned for its art collection and its grounds, designed by Capability Brown in the 1740s and immortalized in the painting of JMW Turner. In 1947 Charles, 3rd Lord Leconfield, gave the house and park with an endowment to the National Trust, thus ensuring their permanent preservation.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), established in April 2005 is a Non-Departmental Public body sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to advance world-class research in the arts and humanities subjects.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Monday, 25 July 2011