Cara/Andrea here, It should come as no surprise that I, as a writer with a background in graphic design, have a soft spot in my heart for the art of the book. So when I recently saw a museum exhibit which included a display of what many experts consider the most beautiful book ever printed, you can well imagine that it my colophon all aflutter. (In book design, the colophon is traditionally the page where a printer gives a little information about the production of the book—where and when it was printed, the typefaces used, the illustrations, etc. And if it is a limited edition book, the number will be handwritten—for example, 5 out of an edition of 100.) So I thought I’d share some of the backstory and visual images from this stunning bibliographic achievement.
“If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral . . .” —Edward Burne-Jones
Published in 1896, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer—known today as The Kelmscott Chaucer—was a joint labor of love by William Morris, a luminary of the artistic and intellectual scene in late 19th century Britain, and his good friend Edward Burne-Jones, a painter/ illustrator who was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The two had met as students at Oxford, where they were part of a circle of aesthetically-minded young men headed by the artist and poet Gabriel Dante Rossetti.
William Morris is a fascinating figure who influenced a wide variety of artistic and intellectual movements of his time. He was not only a textile and furniture designer, but was also a Utopian Socialist who wrote extensively on the need to make a more ideal society. He was appalled by what he saw as the shoddy quality of mass-produced items, which he felt degraded the human soul. Dedicating himself to creating everyday items of beauty, he joined with a group of other artists and craftsmen to establish a company making furniture, textiles, wallcoverings, stained glass and other household items. Through this visionary work, Morris pioneered the British Arts and Crafts movement.
He looked to the past for both ideas and decorative motifs, and was an avid medievalist who translated many old tales and texts. (He also wrote fantasy novels and is considered by some to have inspired the that genre of literature, as his work greatly influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.)
Because of own his prolific writings, Morris became interested in printing and publishing later in life. Feeling that most books of the times were ugly and ill-made, he decided to set up his own shop, which he named Kelmscott Press after Kelmscott Manor, his beloved country house in Oxfordshire. Given his interest in traditional methods and aesthetics, it was no surprise that that he chose to study incunabula (a term which refers to books printed before 1500) in order to formulate his own concepts about how the printed page should look.
“It is the finest book ever printed—if William Morris had done nothing else it would be enough.” —Edward Burne-Jones
Morris considered Chaucer one of the greatest writers in the English language . . . “the most genial and humourful healthy-souled man that England had ever seen.” So the decision to create a book in homage to his hero was a natural choice. According to the British Library website, the project brought together two of Morris’s passions. “First, his love of medieval literature, which inspired the subjects and style of much of his own writing. Second, his socialist philosophy, which looked back to a time before mechanization and division of labour had destroyed, as he saw it, the personal fulfillment and social function of meaningful work.”
To begin with, he designed his own typeface for the book, using the letterforms created by the famed 15th century Venetian printer Nicholas Jensen as a model. (Jensen’s original typeface is considered a classic by graphic designers and a version of it is available today for our computers.) The design, fittingly enough, was named “Chaucer.” Page ornamentation was the next phase, but illness delayed work for nearly a year.
In the meantime, Burne-Jones was working hard on illustrations for the text, worried that Morris might not live long enough to complete their magnum opus. In all, he created 87 drawings, which were then meticulously copied onto wooden blocks and engraved by master craftsman William Harcourt Hooper.
The richly detailed decorative borders were finally completed and represent Morris’s visionary interpretation of medieval ornamentation. Inks and handmade paper were meticulously chosen, and the book when to press in 1896, the same year that Morris died. It is hailed by bibliophiles as nothing short of a masterpiece. (The original edition of 425 copies sold for £20. A special run of 13, priced at £126 were printed on vellum and bound in white pigskin. At recent auction, a paper Kelmscott Chaucer sold for $160,000.)
I first fell in love with the Kelmscott Press books during college, when I saw an edition of The Wood Beyond the World, a fantasy novel written by Morris himself. The textures, scale, symmetry and proportions created by Morris and his collaborators are, to my eye, exquisite. And just as importantly, the decoration doesn’t overpower the text—the type remains very readable as all the elements work in harmony with each other. So I wholeheartedly agree with the museum curators that the Kelmscott Chaucer may be the most beautiful book ever printed.
How about you? Do you have a favorite book that takes your breath away with its beauty? A favorite illustrator? I love Burne-Jones, and also Aubrey Beardsley, especially his drawings for Le Morte d'Arthur.