DIGITAL COLLECTION: A Definite Claim to Beauty: the Kelmscott Press and the Aesthetics of the Book

Dublin Core


DIGITAL COLLECTION: A Definite Claim to Beauty: the Kelmscott Press and the Aesthetics of the Book


William Morris was fascinated by English history from a young age, and while at Oxford, deepened his interest in Medieval history, art, and architecture. He disliked the industrially produced goods of his era, comparing their poor quality to traditionally made crafts. In 1871 he persuaded some friends to found a business with him to produce high-quality textiles, wallpaper, stained glass windows, and furniture; in 1875 he bought out his partners and renamed it Morris & Company. His preference for finely made crafts was a reflection not only of his aesthetics but also of his socialism; he felt that under capitalism, industrialization had replaced skilled crafts makers with people who were little more than cogs in a machine, poorly paid and easily replaceable.

An interest in book design and book making naturally followed his other interests. The Chiswick Press printed some of his books, their texts showing his interest in medieval romances and fantasy and their materials and quality of printing reflecting his desire to reproduce the high craft standards of an earlier age. He studied printing, surveyed available materials - even experimenting with making his own ink - and studying historical printing and type design. In 1891 he rented a cottage in Hammersmith to be the home of his new Kelmscott Press and in May of that year its first book, Morris’s fantasy novel The Story of the Glittering Plain, was released. It was the only title to be printed twice by the Kelmscott Press, the first edition being completed without waiting for the illustrations from artist Walter Crane.

In its seven years, the Kelmscott Press printed 53 books, including 23 written by Morris, consisting of poetry, commentaries on aesthetics, reprinted or retold medieval stories and texts, and original novels.

Collection Items

The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Raven the Skald: Even as Ari Thorgilson the Learned, the Priest, Hath Told It: Who Was the Man of All Iceland Most Learned in Tales of the Land's Inhabiting and in Lore of Time Agone
75 copies of this book were printed for William Morris by the Chiswick Press for private distribution. It was printed in a black letter facsimile of one of Caxton's on hand-made paper left over from the large paper copies of The Roots of the…

The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye
The colophon states that this is a "New edition of William Caxton's Recuyell of the historyes of Troy, done after the first edition, corrected for the press by H. Halliday Sparling, and printed by me William Morris." This is one of 300 copies printed…

Compendium Theologiae Veritatis
In A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, he wrote "[a]fter a while I felt that I must have a Gothic as well as a Roman fount; and herein the task I set myself was to redeem the Gothic character from the charge of…

Gothic Architecture: a Lecture for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society
The lecture includes, along with the stated theme of Gothic architecture, Morris's musing on book arts, furniture, crafts, and literature. The book was printed by the Kelmscott Press during the Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the New Gallery, Regent…

In A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, he wrote, "By instinct rather than by conscious thinking it over, I began by getting myself a fount of Roman type. And here what I wanted was letter pure in form; severe,…

De Civitate Dei
This book was printed by Nicolas Jenson, the printer noted by Morris for the influence of his Roman type on Morris's Golden type. Jenson printed it in 1475 in his Gothic type. 

Card by May Morris
This card is laid in the book Gothic Architecture.

Psalmi Penitentiales
A "rhymed version of the Pentitential Psalms found in a manuscript of Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis, written at Gloucester about the year 1440, and now transcribed and edited by F.S. Ellis. Printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, 14, Upper…

The Tale of the Emperor Coustans and of Over Sea
Medieval romances translated by William Morris from the Old French of "L'empereur Constant" and "Histoire d'outre mer". The latter is better known as "La fille du comte de Ponthieu." The binding is by Belle McMurtry Young, a prominent California…

The Wood Beyond the World
Morris's fantasy novel was written in the style of a medieval romance; it involves a family feud, a tempest, an enchantress, a beautiful maiden, giants, and an unlikely method of becoming king - by being the next foreigner to arrive after the…
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