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‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and not dazzle the eye …’ William Morris
Frustrated by the declining standard of the printed book, William Morris (1834–1896) — British artist, designer, craftsman, writer and socialist — established the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith, London, in January 1891. The industrial revolution had brought with it mechanised printing, which enabled the mass production of books. But with broader audience reach and increased sales, books were being produced using cheaper, poorer quality materials. Kelmscott employed strong design principles and, in just a few years, produced 53 finely crafted titles (totalling some 18,000 copies). In just a few years, the Kelmscott Press produced 53 finely crafted titles (totalling some 18,000 copies), displaying strong design principles.
Inspired by medieval manuscripts
Morris and his friend Edward Burne-Jones were founders of the Arts & Crafts movement, an international movement that celebrated decorative and fine arts, and flourished between 1880 and 1910, beginning in Britain before spreading to North America. They were inspired by medieval manuscripts and the work of fifteenth-century printers. They spent many hours in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, studying illuminated manuscripts and medieval woodcuts. Their aim was not to imitate medieval manuscripts but rather revisit the craftsmanship used in the creation of those volumes. Illuminated manuscripts provided influential models of book design showing how text, image and ornament could be harmoniously integrated on the page. The Kelmscott Press published Morris’s own work as well as translations and reprints of medieval writing he believed should be read.
This year also marks the 125th anniversary of the Kelmscott edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Published in 1896, the book is an outstanding product of the nineteenth century private press movement. It features 87 illustrations by artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones, a woodcut title page, and many borders, frames and initials created by William Morris.
Considered one of the most beautiful books ever printed, the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ is the best-known of the Kelmscott editions. It took four years to complete, and all 438 copies were presold before the book went to print. The Library’s copy was bound in kangaroo hide by State Library binder Frank Heyner in 1921. The elaborate tooling replicates the intricate grapevine borders designed by William Morris.
In his essay, published in The Ideal Book (1893), Morris acknowledged that although the illustrated book is not absolutely necessary to human life ‘it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things’.
Curator, Research and Discovery