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Senate House Library

The Book Beautiful: Celebrating William Morris' Kelmscott Press


Written by
Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art

To mark International Kelmscott Press Day on 26 June, we take a look at the history of William Morris' Private Press and Senate House Library’s treasured copies of Morris' beautifully printed works… 

Among Senate House Library’s treasures is a full set of books from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, founded 130 years ago by this trailblazing private press movement to restore craftsmanship to printing and to celebrate ‘the book beautiful’.

Kelmscott Press - The Works of Chaucer

The Kelmscott Chaucer

For size and lavishness the Kelmscott Chaucer of 1896, the 125th anniversary of which is being celebrated on 26 June 2021, stands out. This edition of Chaucer’s complete works has been described not only as Morris’s greatest achievement, but as the finest book produced since Gutenberg’s Bible almost 450 years earlier. Artist and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones designed the woodcut title, five borders, and 87 illustrations. His reputation rests on this work. William Morris designed the rest of the borders, the woodcut initials, and the ‘Chaucer type’ used for it. A total of 425 copies were printed. At twenty pounds a copy—the equivalent of two months of wages for a skilled tradesman—the market was exclusive. Both the Senate House Library copies come from keen collectors, one copy from the Colman family of Colman’s mustard fame.

Kelmscott Press - The Works of Chaucer

The Rarity of Kelmscott Press Collections

To own a complete set of Kelmscott Press books is a privilege and rarer than the Kelmscott Chaucer itself is the ephemera we possess connected with it - proofs of two of the large borders, owned formerly by the collectors Charles Fairfax Murray and Sydney Cockerell. We also have several catalogues and prospectuses and two specimen pages.

A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press

Shown here is a copy of the last book printed at the Press. It was finished on 4 March 1898, seventeen months after Morris’s death, and is just 70 pages long. It is A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, together with a Short Description of the Press by S.C. Cockerell & an Annotated List of the Books Printed Thereat. In it Morris, writing in late 1895, describes his desire to produce books which were both pleasurable to look at typographically and easy to read and the means to make them (type, paper, spacing, decoration). The book’s detailed description of specific works is a gem for print historians, especially such information as how ‘six copies of The Glittering Plain were printed on very fine vellum obtained from Rome, of which it was impossible to get a second supply as it was all required by the Vatican’.

Kelmscott’s roots

The Kelmscott Press emerged from William Morris’s immersion in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, well represented elsewhere at Senate House Library. Shown here is Mary De Morgan’s On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales, illustrated by her brother William. William De Morgan, whose main interest was in ceramics, was a friend of William Morris. Thomas Woolner is the Pre-Raphaelite whose work is most obvious in Senate House Library, as his sculpture of the bust of the mathematician Augustus De Morgan, William’s father, is in the entrance hall.

On A Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales, Mary de Morgan, 1877

As Morris wrote in his Aims, he had always been struck by the beauty of fifteenth-century books, or incunabula. To experience the quality of the paper made from linen rags and the blackness of ink that so impressed William Morris, order up one of our incunabula (early printed books before 1501) to see in the Special Collections reading room. Many are Italian (Italian incunabula were regarded as the most beautiful). For the sheer range of the output of masses of printers all together, there’s Haebler’s leaf book. This is a large book of single leaves of numerous books. The most popular of our incunabula is William Caxton’s The Play of Chess (1483), largely for the woodcuts (featured in our SHL150 online gallery celebrating 150 years of Senate House Library’s collections). 

Kelmscott & The Private Press Movement

After Morris established the Kelmscott Press, many more private presses followed. Of those represented in Senate House Library, the Ashendene Press (established in 1895) and the Essex House Press (established in 1898, with equipment inherited from the Kelmscott Press) are most redolent of the Kelmscott Press. 

The most famous private press edition of Chaucer, except for the Kelmscott Chaucer, is that produced 1929-1931 by the Golden Cockerel Press of The Canterbury Tales. This was another landmark publication, ‘one of the foremost English illustrated books of the twentieth century’. Like the Kelmscott Chaucer, it included specially designed features (initial letters) and was a major undertaking, occupying much of the Golden Cockerel Press’s time and money until 1931. Both editions of follow the text of W.W. Skeat and both presses produced a few copies printed on vellum. Senate House Library’s copy of the Golden Cockerel edition is one of the vellum ones.

Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Canterbury Tales, 1929-31

Tales Through The Ages

By the time the Kelmscott Chaucer was published, Chaucer’s works had been appearing in print for more than four centuries. Numerous donors have combined to give us strong holdings of Chaucer, with almost every significant edition from 1492 onwards. The Workes of Geffray Chaucer from 1532 is the first collected edition of Chaucer’s works. Its editor, William Thynne (d. 1546) was motivated by wanting to correct ‘many errours, falsities and deprauacions’ in earlier editions of Chaucer. He arrived at his text by comparing various manuscripts and printed versions with each other. Thynne provided the first biography of Chaucer and printed some Chaucerian works, such as The Romaunt of the Rose and The Legend of Good Women, for the first time.

The Workes of Geffray Chaucer from 1532

Senate House Library also has works by William Morris produced by the standard publishers of the day. Socialist works include among others the pamphlets Useful Work v. Useless Toil and Chants for Socialists, both published by the Socialist League Office in 1885; How I Became a Socialist (1896), published by Twentieth Century Press; and Help for the Miners (1893), printed by Baines & Scarsbrook in South Hampstead. Literary works and others appear in editions published by Longmans, Green, Bell and Daldy, and by Ellis and White, like this pamphlet from 1878, The Decorative Arts. These indicate not just the diversity of Morris’s interests, but the standard mechanised form of Victorian book production to which Morris objected. 

Kelmscott Press - The Works of Chaucer

Celebrating the book beautiful

Our Kelmscott Press books are within a section on private presses within the Sterling Library, a named special collection of first and fine editions of English literature, and they are noted in the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. The Kelmscott Chaucer is a magnificent book which is being celebrated on its 125th anniversary of publication this International Kelmscott Press Day as well as part of Senate House Library’s 150th anniversary in our online gallery of 150 treasured/unique items.

Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art