“The question…is this, whether we are to have books which are beautiful as books; books in which type, paper, woodcuts, and the due arrangement of all these are to be considered, and which are so treated as to produce a harmonious whole, something which will give a person with a sense of beauty real pleasure whenever and wherever the book is opened, even before he begins to look closely into the illustrations; or whether the beautiful and inventive illustrations are to be looked on as separate pictures embedded in a piece of utilitarianism, which they cannot decorate because it cannot help them to do so.” (William Morris qtd. in Kelmscott Centennial 1)
William Morris was a nineteenth century author, designer, printer, and socialist/social reformer. He was a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, known for his friendships with D. G. Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Morris is perhaps best known for the design firm he started with friends but later bought out and re-named Morris & Co. Designing everything from furniture to wallpaper, Morris was immersed in all aspects of design and production. Jack Lindsay in William Morris: Dreamer of Dreams describes essential concepts of Morris’s work as “his respect for materials, for true functionality, for relation of form and function, the integrity and simplicity of design vis-à-vis purpose” (14). The Kelmscott Press was Morris’s last endeavor—a fine print press that he started in 1890 with its first book, Morris’s own The Story of the Glittering Plain, being printed in 1891. Kelsmcott was a fine print press focused on developing exquisite typography and balanced book designs all while using the best possible materials. It was the initiative that sparked the growth of private and fine print presses throughout Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
William Morris designed three typefaces for the press “Golden, based on Nicholas Jenson’s 15th century Roman type, Troy, a gothic type, and Chaucer, which was a smaller version of Troy” (The Arts and Crafts Museum). Burns Library holds a few volumes from the Kelmscott Press in its Fine Print Collections. The books are beautifully printed on heavy, handmade linen paper in black and red ink. Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair was written by Morris and printed in 1895. The title comes in two volumes, both smaller, hard-bound books with half-linen binding and what appear to be hand-sewn fabric dustjackets that were added by a later owner. The margins are wide, allowing the text block to figure prominently on the page accompanied by decorated capitals and the occasional border. The first page of Chapter 1 in Vol. 1 of the text highlights Morris’s use of foliage and borders.
The second Kelmscott book in the Burns collection is The History of Reynard the Fox. Translated by William Caxton, the father of English printing, it seems only appropriate that the Kelmscott Press, as a central element in the history of fine print press history, should put out a fine print version of the tale. The Burns Library copy is beautiful: the book has soft vellum covers and linen ties that hold it shut. The book itself is protected with a fabric covered sleeve held in place by more linen ties. The paper is heavy and handmade and the text is printed in red and black ink with ornate capital letters and foliate borders.
The Kelmscott Press books are beautiful to look at and function as an invitation to the reader to slow down and enjoy the components of the book itself from the carefully designed type to the intricate decorations to the surprisingly heavy paper. The Kelmscott press, as the herald of the fine print movement, is an excellent place to start exploring the products of fine print presses, many of which are available in the Burns Library Fine Print Collection. If you are interested in viewing these books, please call or email the Burns Library Reading Room at (617)-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Rachel A. Ernst, John J. Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant and PhD candidate in the BC English department
Caxton, William. The History of Reynard the Foxe. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892.
Hammer, Victor et. al William Morris and His Heirs: A Kelmscott Centennial. Minneapolis: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1991.
Lindsay, Jack. William Morris: Dreamer of Dreams. London: The Nine Elms Press, 1991.
Morris, William. Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1895.
Robinson, Duncan. William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Kelmscott Chaucer. London: Gordon Fraser, 1982.