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William Morris & The Kelmscott Chaucer

William Morris & The Kelmscott Chaucer Shapero Rare Books
Kelmlscott Press founder William Morris was also a serious book collector; he amassed a library of Medieval manuscripts and fine antiquariana...
William Morris & The Kelmscott Chaucer Shapero Rare Books

The Kelmscott Chaucer emerged in 1896, the last book to be published by The Kelmscott Press before the death of its founder William Morris, later that year. The piece represented the culmination of an interest in Medieval art and literature that had spanned Morris’ lifetime - caught within the machine of a country striding towards mechanization, he had searched for an escape through both his own art and that of his predecessors.

Morris’ fascination with the Medieval stemmed from his time at Oxford, where he also met the artist Edward Burne Jones who was to become his lifelong friend and collaborator (later providing illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer). Though neither was resident of one of the university’s Medieval colleges – Morris was at Exeter and Burne Jones at Pembroke – they developed a shared love of the period, inspired by the city’s beautiful buildings. Morris’ interest in the Medieval continued on from University and he undertook trips to both Belgium and northern France to increase his knowledge of Medieval art.

Back in London he fell in with leading members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Arthur Hughes, who equally shared his love for the art and literature of the period. This can be seen in the work being produced by the group at the time - the paintings mimicking the shining colours of illuminations, the elaborately crafted poetry recalling the work of Chaucer or Malory. A lesser known side of Morris was his work as a collector. He had begun to collect books whilst at Oxford, but it was not until later life that he became a serious collector. From 1880 onwards he amassed a library of Medieval manuscripts and 15th century illustrated printed books in French and German of a superior quality.

By the time of Morris’ death his collection numbered over 2,000 books and included works as diverse as a 13th century bible and the Complete Works of Fielding. It was this collection that served as inspiration for the tomes which were to be published by the Kelmscott Press. Morris came up with the idea for the press following a meeting with the engraver and printer Emery Walker at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1888. The two developed a close friendship, sharing a passion for craftsmanship and a commitment to the Socialist cause. Both were members of the Hammersmith Socialist League and the influence of this political background can be seen in the founding of the Press, which harkens back to the 15th century view of printing as a means through which to access knowledge. Morris founded the Kelmscott press in 1891 ‘with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty.’

The press published a range of volumes, including the works of Swinburne, Ruskin and Morris himself. The copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was chief among the works printed, a culmination of Morris’ vision for a return to Medieval aestheticism.

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