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British Medievalism: A Subject Guide

William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

Wood engraving by W.H. Hooper designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones of illustrated poem by Chaucer.[Narcissus staring at image in well] Rosenwald 2041. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

When researching English medievalism, there is probably no greater devotee than William Morris (1834-1896), and no greater exemplar than his famous Kelmscott Chaucer.

A poet, novelist, translator, painter, and the owner of the Kelmscott Press at Kelmscott Manor, William Morris is best known as a textile designer and for his famous wallpaper patterns that have become icons of the British Arts and Crafts movement. The border designs of the Kelmscott Chaucer borrow heavily from textile designs in the interweaving of the dense foliage that surrounds the printed pages. In partnership with the artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones, Morris created the Kelmscott Chaucer as a kind of homage or realization of an ideal image of the hand-press book inspired by illuminated manuscripts and fifteenth-century printed books.

William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones met in 1853 at Exeter College in Oxford University as divinity students. They shared an interest in art and medieval literature, and abandoned their divinity studies to become artists under the mentorship of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, founder of the artistic movement called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Disappointed in his painting, William Morris became interested in printing through the writings of, and his friendship with, Emery Walker, the English engraver, printer, and photographer whom Morris met at the Hammersmith Socialist League. Morris and Emery studied fifteenth-century book production, type faces, and papermaking.

The Kelmscott Chaucer took William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones four years to produce. Containing 87 woodcut illustrations, 116 full-page plates, and countless border decorations and decorated initials, the project was an enormous undertaking. 425 copies were printed on handmade paper, and another 13 copies were printed on vellum. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has both a vellum copy and a copy printed on handmade paper.

Frederick H. Evans, photographerKelmscott Manor: Thro' a window in the tapestry room [between 1930 and 1940]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

While the Rare Book and Special Collections Division has primary source material for studying the Kelmscott Press, researchers are encouraged to make use of the secondary material available through the Library's relevant electronic resources. For example, on October 4, 1896, The San Francisco Call newspaper wrote an article about the Kelmscott Chaucer. The article features a large image of the text that was printed with the permission of the Kelmscott Press. This issue, with the large image of the Kelmscott Chaucer, is available to view through the Library of Congress' Chronicling America full-text, searchable database. (Employing the zoom feature is recommended in order to read the text).

Printed with with great effort and attention to detail on a hand press with traditional materials such as hand-made paper and vellum, the Kelmscott Chaucer was an expensive, luxury item. Most people, and certainly most people from the United States, would not be able to view the artistry in person. Industrialized printing, however, quickly produced newspaper reproductions and the journalistic article, which made Morris' project more accessible. For students of history, this tension between mass production and accessibility highlights some of the interesting tensions embedded in Morris' anachronistically "medieval" aspirations for his project.

Kelmscott Press Collection