A Crowning Achievement | William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer
On 10th September 2014, Lyon & Turnbull offered a copy of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1896, produced by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. Widely acknowledged as the “…crowning achievement of the Kelmscott Press…” the work is a superb example of arts and crafts illustration and printing. This particular example, in blue holland backed boards, fetched £33,650 (inclusive of premium).
In November 1888, William Morris attended a course of lectures held at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Two of the talks, given by Emery Walker on the book arts, are widely accepted to be the trigger which prompted Morris to found the Kelmscott Press in 1891, named after the house in Oxfordshire where Morris had lived for some time. In the course of the lectures, Walker compared slides showing what he, and evidently most of the company, considered to be elegant 16th century typography, alongside the far blander contemporary Victorian typefaces. These visual comparisons seem to have cemented Morris’s interest in typography, soon developing into a wider interest in printing.
The famous ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ came into being in June 1896. The book was, justifiably, highly praised - Edward Burne-Jones, Morris’s fellow Chaucer enthusiast from their Oxford University days, provided the work with 87 woodcut illustrations. Morris himself created the woodcut title, 14 large and intricate page borders, 18 different frames for Burne-Jones’s illustrations, and 26 designs for initial words. Morris spent three years creating these designs and by the end of the process, he was visibly ailing. William S. Peterson writes that Burne-Jones was fearful Morris might die before completing the engraved title-page. In fact, Morris did die in the October following publication, making the Kelmscott Chaucer his last great work.
After having being announced in a list of Kelmscott titles in preparation in 1892, printing began in 1894. This soon proved to be such a mammoth task that one press could not produce the book quickly enough, and another press was installed in a nearby building. Finally, 425 copies of the book were printed on paper, costing £20 each (a handsome sum in 1896), and 13 copies of the work were printed on vellum, with a price tag of 120 guineas each. The finest copies come in an elaborate pigskin binding, also designed by William Morris and one of these books printed on vellum weighs 13lb.
Peterson writes that the Kelmscott Press itself can be regarded as being, “…the quintessential example of an arts-and- crafts longing for the pre-industrial age.” This is represented in both the text and the artwork in the book. Morris and Burne-Jones were passionate about discovering the ‘real Chaucer’ – the poet’s work as it was originally conceived, without the ‘gloss’ of later Renaissance and Neo-Classical influences. Burne-Jones’s illustrations, whilst having little basis in the woodblock depictions found in early editions of Chaucer’s works, can trace their inspiration back to illuminated manuscripts found in the Bodleian Library and early miniatures. Morris considered Chaucer to be a literary mentor and the book pays homage to the 14th century poet.
However, some caution should be exercised when examining the Kelmscott Chaucer in terms of its fidelity to Morris’s reputation for eschewing the modern era and technology. In keeping with his interest in typography, Morris designed three types: ‘Golden’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Chaucer’, each named after the book they were produced for. Morris utilised his library of incunabula and early printed books to find models for these types. However, in order to get a true picture of the original founts, Morris would have the text photographed and enlarged. Peterson argues that, despite the pre-industrial principles of the Kelmscott Press, it was, “…paradoxically built upon a foundation of photography, one of the most sophisticated forms of technology in late-Victorian England.” This adds yet another dimension to the Kelmscott Chaucer, but does not detract from the book itself being a complete work of art and design, embodying both text and illustration.
- Peterson, William S. A bibliography of the Kelmscott Press. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984
- Peterson, William S. The Kelmscott Press… Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991
- Sparling, H. Halliday. The Kelmscott Press and William Morris… London: MacMillan & Co., 1924