Title: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer, William Morris (design), Sir Edward Burne-Jones (illus)
Publisher: The Folio Society, 2008
Condition: Hardcover, ornate cloth with slipcase. New and perfect. Bound in buckram, blocked with a design by William Morris.
Paper specially commissioned from James Cropper, a small mill in the Lake District, England.
Gilded top edge, ribbon marker.
Presented in a gold–blocked slipcase 568 pages. 16¾” x 11½”. Absolutely enormous – the largest book in our collection. Shipping overseas will cost extra.
The book for which William Morris had such high hopes was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Published in 1896 at Morris’s Kelmscott Press, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of book production – the finest publication to emerge from the Arts and Crafts movement and universally acclaimed as the zenith of private press publishing.
‘This book I hope to make a specially beautiful one as to typography and decoration, and I naturally wish to make the text as good as possible … It is intended to be essentially a work of art’.
A Landmark of Printing
The Kelmscott Chaucer, as it has become known, represents the pinnacle of Morris’s career as a typographer and designer. The medieval style ‘Chaucer’ fount, lavish ornamental borders, decorative capitals and frames he created, combined with the stunning woodcut illustrations of Edward Burne-Jones, provide an exquisite setting for the poetic works of Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, The Parliament of Fowls, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Romaunt of the Rose. In fact, Morris’s masterpiece is even more exquisite than the 15th and 16th- century editions he so admired. The Kelmscott Chaucer did much more than revive an antique style of bookmaking; it fulfilled Morris’s vision of what could be achieved through a combination of modern printing techniques and traditional crafts.
His work was a beacon for others, including the Dove Press, the Nonesuch and Eric Gill, and it would set a new standard for book design. An original copy is now in the British Library’s ‘Landmarks in Printing’ Gallery alongside such treasures as Shakespeare’s First Folio and The Gutenberg Bible.
A Labour of Love
According to Morris, Chaucer was ‘the most genial and humourful healthy-souled man that England had ever seen’. With the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1890, Morris could realise the dream he had nursed since his student days of producing a volume worthy of his hero. Few publishers would have indulged in such a labour of love. The work began in 1892 and continued steadily for four years, as Morris, his co-editor F. S. Ellis and the famous pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones strove for perfection in every detail, from selecting the most suitable inks and paper tousing the most authoritative Chaucerian text available, the Oxford edition of 1894. Burne-Jones’s contribution to the volume cannot be overstated – his 87 designs were a far cry from the stilted woodcuts of previous editions, even though he preferred not to illustrate scenes from the ‘racier’ episodes of The Canterbury Tales. Morris died in October 1896, but not before the publication of The Kelmscott Chaucer, considered by many to be his greatest achievement and certainly the work which was closest to Morris’s heart.
‘If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design’
In this fine edition, Morris’s great work has been re-presented in an exact facsimile on beautiful laid paper with gilded top edges, whilst the sturdy buckram binding is richly blocked with one of Morris’s designs. With an original first edition of The Kelmscott Chaucer selling in New York for $160,000 last year, this Fine Edition facsimile represents an opportunity to own a piece of publishing history at an astonishing price.
‘The finest book ever printed – if W. M. had done nothing else it would be enough’
WILLIAM MORRIS (1834–96) excelled in many creative fields – poetry, prose, painting, architecture – but it is as the founder and guiding spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement that he is probably most famous today. One of Morris’s many criticisms of the industrial age was the damage it had done to the practice of traditional skilled crafts, particularly in relation to interior design and decoration. So, he set about reviving them – first in the wallpaper, stained glass, tiles, pottery, furniture and fabrics he produced through his company ‘Morris and Co.’, and, later in life, in the intricately designed and printed books of the Kelmscott Press.
GEOFFREY CHAUCER (1343–1400) is often credited as the father of English literature and the first writer to privilege the vernacular over Latin or Anglo-French in England. A diplomat and court official he gained the patronage of John of Gaunt for whom he wrote the Book of the Duchess, a lament for Gaunt’s first wife Blanche. Chaucer translated and adapted many of the European courtly romances, giving his own distinctive interpretation. His tragedy Troilus and Criseyde remains one of the most moving poetic romances of literature, but it is for his Canterbury Tales with their entirely original English setting and mixture of bawdy humour and romance that he is best remembered. Buried in Westminster Abbey, his tomb became the first in what is now known as Poets’ Corner.
THE KELMSCOTT CHAUCER
An excerpt from an afterword by William S. Peterson
Long before it came off the press, the Kelmscott Chaucer was famous. One of the earliest references to the book (in the Athenaeum, 22 October 1892) struck the note of admiration bordering on adoration that recurs in nearly all future allusions to it:
Lovers of Chaucer on both sides of the Atlantic will rejoice to hear that [Edward Burne-Jones] has made very great progress with a series of designs, fifty or sixty in all, which are to be cut in wood under his own superintendence, and intended to illustrate the ‘Canterbury Tales ’ and the other poems of Chaucer. These designs promise to be charmingly graceful and beautiful in execution. Indeed, we are confident that since, precisely a hundred years ago, Flaxman . . . designed for the first Countess Spencer the famous ‘Illustrations to the Tragedies of Aeschylus ’, poet and artist have never been better fitted to each other. The text to which these designs are adapted will be collated with the best manuscripts and carefully edited by Mr W. Morris and Mr F. S. Ellis. The typography will be worthy of the occasion, and the volume a stately quarto [sic].
In 1892 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was still in embryo, but as its birth neared there was widespread gossip about the astonishing folio in production at the Kelmscott Press. A New York periodical, the Book Buyer (18 November 1895), published a facsimile of the first page of The Canterbury Tales and declared that the Chaucer ‘will be without question the grandest book of the century’ in 1895 some sheets of the Chaucer were shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in Dublin, prompting the Studio (January 1896) to describe the book, not yet published, as holding ‘the place of honour among the other productions of this press’. Morris ’s associates did not hesitate to bestow superlatives upon it. ‘It’s the finest book ever printed and it’s more than likely there’ll never be such another, ’ Burne-Jones said. Ellis argued that ‘for typography, ornament and illustrations combined’, the Chaucer was ‘the grandest book that has issued from the press since the invention of typography’.
That the most ambitious, richly ornamented book of the Kelmscott Press proved to be an edition of Chaucer came as no surprise to any of Morris ’s admirers, for he and Burne-Jones had counted Chaucer as one of their great discoveries at Oxford, and throughout his life Morris’s poetry was constantly being compared by critics with that of his medieval predecessor. Though Morris himself protested occasionally against the injustice of the analogy, he had only himself to blame for his identification in the public mind with Chaucer: he had, after all, addressed Chaucer as ‘my Master’ in both Book XVII of The Life and Death of Jason and the ‘Envoi’ to The Earthly Paradise, and the latter poem was plainly patterned after The Canterbury Tales. Still, Morris remained slightly uneasy about the comparison, and it is noteworthy that he declined to write an introduction to Chaucer for T. H. Ward ’s The English Poets in 1878. Not only did he feel ill–equipped to supply such an introduction, but Morris also objected to Ward ’s plan to print merely a small selection from Chaucer ’s works.
Behind the Kelmscott Chaucer lies a long lineage of Chaucer manuscripts and printed editions, many of them illustrated, with which Morris, as a collector and antiquarian, was well acquainted. The practice of wedding picture with Chaucer’s text extends back to the earliest manuscripts, the most celebrated of which is the fifteenth century Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California). Morris’s aim was to recapture, without direct copying, the simplicity and vitality of fifteenth– and sixteenth–century editions of Chaucer that were closer in time and spirit to Chaucer’s own age. Morris believed that only by peeling off Renaissance and neo–classical layers of cultural interpretation could he recover something like the Chaucer of the Middle Ages, and this involved both a careful restoration of Chaucer’s text (including his spelling) and a return to a more medieval style of typography and ornamentation…
…Only 425 copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer were printed (not 325, as originally announced), so it is not surprising that a number of facsimiles have been produced to satisfy the demand for this legendary work. Head and shoulders above the rest is the Basilisk Press edition of 1975. Printed at the John Roberts Press by letterpress from line blocks, on paper commissioned as a perfect match to the original, it is an astonishing recreation, and even experts have difficulty distinguishing one from the other. It is thanks to the kindness of Mr Bernard Roberts, proprietor of the John Roberts Press at that time, that the Folio Society facsimile has come into being. He loaned his own copy to be disbound and photographed for the printing of this book, first published in 2002 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies bound in full leather, and reprinted in 2008 in an unlimited edition.
This is an excerpt from an essay in William S. Peterson’s, The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris ’s Typographical Adventure (Oxford University Press, 1991), copyright ©William S. Peterson 1991, and is reproduced by kind permission of Oxford University Press.