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Kelmscott Chaucer

Image from the Kelmscott Chaucer

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
Briitsh Library C.43.h.19
Copyright © The British Library Board
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William Morris, the 19th-century designer, social reformer and writer, founded the Kelmscott Press towards the end of his life. He wanted to revive the skills of hand printing, which mechanisation had destroyed, and restore the quality achieved by the pioneers of printing in the 15th century. The magnificent ‘Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’, published in 1896, is the triumph of the press. Its 87 illustrations are by Edward Burne-Jones, the celebrated Victorian painter, who was a life-long friend of Morris.

Who was William Morris?

Though best known today as a designer of fabrics and wallpapers, in his own time Morris was equally famous for his writing and his pioneering socialism. He was a man of fierce energies and strong opinions. When he was taken to court for knocking a policeman’s helmet off during a political demonstration, Morris was stubbornly unrepentant. In his socialist vision of a future Britain, ‘News from Nowhere’, the Houses of Parliament are used for the storage of dung – all they are good for, says the book’s narrator.

William Morris was born into a prosperous middle-class family in Walthamstow, then a village just outside London, in 1834. He went up to Oxford University to study theology, but lost his faith and left before taking his degree. At Oxford, however, he met Edward Burne-Jones, and both joined a group of young men who circled around the charismatic figure of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, poet and artist. Morris determined to become a painter himself. His pictures were disappointing, and his ambition was abandoned.

Morris was dismayed by the shoddy quality of the mass-produced goods turned out by the industrial machinery of the 19th century, which he saw as degrading taste and everyday life. In 1861, he persuaded his artist and designer friends to join him in setting up a company to produce quality furniture, printed textiles, tapestries, wallpaper and stained glass. But Morris’ bluff manner alienated his partners, and in 1875 he resolved to buy them out and re-launch the firm as Morris & Company.

How did the Kelmscott Press come about?

Morris developed an interest in printing through the publication of his own writings and his friendship with Emery Walker, an expert on typography and a fellow member of the Hammersmith Socialist League. Together they studied early printed books, known as ‘incunabula’ - a term derived from the Latin word for ‘cradle’ since the books come from the infancy of printing, before 1501.

Frustrated by the declining standard of printed book, Morris set up his own press “with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time… not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.”

How was the Kelmscott Press different?

Morris’ approach to design was fundamentalist: he went back to the basics of any medium he employed. For his printed fabrics he had re-created dyes from traditional recipes. For his book making he looked back to the earliest days of printing in the 15th century.

He took as his inspiration the type made by Nicholas Jensen in Venice in the 1470s. Individual letters from one of Jensen’s books were photographed and enlarged. Morris copied the shapes of the letters over and over until he was confident he had the measure of them. He then drew designs of his own, in the spirit of Jensen but not slavishly copied.

Morris insisted on handmade paper. His search led to a paper-mill at Little Chart, in Kent, whose owner was prepared to try matching the 15th-century Italian papers Morris admired. Ink came from the German firm of Jaenecke – but only after Morris abandoned the idea of making his own in order to be absolutely sure of the quality of its ingredients.

At the beginning of 1891, premises were found at 16 Upper Mall, Hammersmith. William Bowden was engaged as master-printer to run the practical side of the business. Morris named the press after Kelmscott Manor, his beloved country house in Wiltshire.

Who was Chaucer?

Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with having set the style for Middle English literature. He was born in London, around 1345, into a well-connected family of wine-merchants and earned his living as an administrative servant of the royal court.

His first literary works were translations of French originals or much influenced by them. Later, Chaucer’s writing picks up an Italian flavour through his diplomatic visits there. Finally, French, Italian and classical influences are synthesised into a truly English style in Chaucer’s two mature works: ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ and the ‘Canterbury Tales’.

The continuous publication of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ since the author’s death, and the inspiration the stories have provided for other writers and artists, are testimony to the enduring appeal of Chaucer’s writing.

What’s special about the Kelmscott Chaucer?

The Kelmscott Chaucer set a new benchmark for book design at the end of the 19th century. It was also the last great project of Morris’ life, bringing together two of his passions. First, his love of medieval literature, which inspired the subjects and style of much of his own writing. Second, his socialist philosophy, which looked back to a time before mechanisation and division of labour had destroyed, as he saw it, the personal fulfilment and social function of meaningful work.

The book was exceptional in its ambitious number of illustrations and rich decorative borders. “If we live to finish it,” Burne-Jones wrote, “it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.”

How was the book made?

Morris and Burne-Jones worked on the book for four years. Early in 1892, two trial pages were set in one of Morris’ types, called ‘Troy’. The results were not satisfactory, the problem being the type size. A smaller version of the same design was cut, and christened ‘Chaucer’. Morris had intended to begin designs for the decorative borders immediately, but illness prevented him from starting until a year later.

Meanwhile, Edward Burne-Jones spent every Sunday on the book’s 87 illustrations, working long hours in fear that Morris might die before the project was finished. His pencil drawings were painted over in Chinese white and Indian ink by R. Catterson-Smith, whose interpretive role is often overlooked. The black and white designs were then transferred to wooden blocks and engraved by William Harcourt Hooper.

On seeing the first copy, Burne-Jones wrote: “When Morris and I were little chaps at Oxford, if such a book had come out then we should have just gone off our heads, but we have made at the end of our days the very thing we would have made then if we could.’
Burne-Jones penned a humorous cartoon to mark the occasion, showing himself and Morris embraced by the ghost of Chaucer, who pronounces a grateful benediction: “Bless Ye My Children.”

425 copies were printed and sold at £20 each. A further 13 copies printed on vellum were priced at 120 guineas (£126), and 48 were specially bound in white pig’s skin with silver clasps. In the same year, 1896, William Morris died.

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