William Morris and the Kelmscott Press
June 5, 2010 6:08 PM   Subscribe

The multi-talented William Morris' most famous achievement was the Kelmscott Press, which played a leading role in establishing the private press movement. Although the fifty-three books issued by the Press ranged from Shakespeare's poems to Morris' own work, one book remains prized above all others: the Kelmscott Chaucer. Published in 1896, and featuring illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, the Kelmscott Chaucer was the most exquisite work of a press known for exquisite work. (Previous Morris.)
posted by thomas j wise (9 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget to take a look at Morris and Burne-Jones' excellent contributions to Pre-Raphaelite art, and my favorite, stained glass.
posted by princelyfox at 7:45 PM on June 5, 2010

Forgot to add my favorite (best larger). Here's more context for Morris' work in the decorative arts.
posted by princelyfox at 7:56 PM on June 5, 2010

William Morris has been on my radar lately, most notably in an excerpt from a forthcoming Bill Bryson book. Apparently, when it came to London's Great Exhibition in 1851:

"William Morris, the future designer and aesthete, then aged seventeen, was so appalled by what he saw as the exhibition's lack of taste and veneration of excess that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes."
posted by redsparkler at 9:45 PM on June 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I owe the future existence of my job to the Kelmscott Chaucer.

Let me explain. There's a lot of anxiety in librarianship right now about what our profession will look like in the coming decades, as information sources transition ever more completely to digital forms, and people no longer have to go to physical locations to obtain them. That transformation is coming to special collections too, of course. We're digitizing as much of our holdings as we can as fast as we can (although there's never enough funding for a project this huge, even at Harvard).

But even if we digitized everything we owned, people would still need to come to see the objects in person. From a book-history standpoint, the physical aspects of information transmission are crucial to understanding the information being transmitted. And from an aesthetic standpoint, it's impossible to replicate the experience of seeing these objects in person (at least until we get holodecks).

The artistic style of the Kelmscott Chaucer may or may not be to your taste, but these scans just can't do justice to what an astounding impact the book makes in person. The pure, smooth creaminess of the vellum (if you're going to go to the trouble of seeing one, find one on vellum), the ink that's so black that looking at it is like being punched in the eyeballs, the incredible density of the designs. It's just so intense and luminous, it makes me a bit woozy. No one would say that seeing a Van Gogh online is a substitute for seeing it in person, and the same is true for the Kelmscott Chaucer.

As long as people want to come see a Kelmscott Chaucer in person, I've still got a job. (Note: if you want to come see Houghton's, you have to ask in advance. It's not in my department, but I can try to put in a good word for you.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:35 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I keep expecting a greater rediscovery of Morris as one of the inventors of the twentieth Century. It's going to happen one of these days. Maybe it will take a steamy biopic with everyone around him frolicking in each others beds while Morris satisfies himself with higher pursuits.

You can buy a PDF of high res photos of every page in the Kelmscott Chaucer from Octavo, which was started as a hobby company by Adobe founder John Warnock.

While it's not the same as seeing the real thing, you can look at every page in detail — and you don't need to wear gloves.

(You can also now get Aldus' edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilus. Yum. I've bought both of these CD-ROMs and some others. Their PDFs are searchable, and include translations of non-english texts.)
posted by KS at 7:33 AM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is gorgeous, thanks for posting.
posted by theora55 at 7:50 AM on June 6, 2010

The Arts & Crafts movement is one of those things that makes me feel like I was born about 100 years too late (advances in civil rights & medicine notwithstanding.) It's such a wonderful bridge from the super-organic forms of Art Nouveau to the more modern/industrial forms of the 20th century... and probably the last time that the labor required to build and fabricate such lovely things was cheap enough to do on any remotely affordable scale, just because production-line manufacturing wasn't fully entrenched yet.

The internet is a wonderful place, though: I found Nick Curtis' freeware Kelmscott Roman font, which is based on some of Morris' type designs for the press.
posted by usonian at 8:05 AM on June 6, 2010

I lovelovelove Pre-Raphaelite art.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:32 AM on June 6, 2010

I held off on commenting until I'd had a chance to look at the links, which are fantastic. Fabulous post, and thanks for making it. Also, thanks to princelyfox for pointing me at that stained glass Flickr group.
posted by immlass at 7:26 PM on June 6, 2010

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