morris’s works and legacy

Book Arts

William Morris was interested in the book arts throughout his life. As a child and a young man, he loved to study the illuminated manuscripts in the collections of cathedrals and libraries. His printed books have been called “pocket cathedrals”, an apt description for works known for their harmonious integration of design, illustration, and methods of production.

In the first half of the 1870s, Morris experimented with calligraphy and illumination inspired by medieval manuscripts. In 1888, he again turned to the book, this time concentrating on print. Again drawing on the inspiration of medieval manuscripts as well as incunabula (early, pre-sixteenth-century printed books), Morris set out to design typefaces that reflected the ideals and ornamentation of the period. He designed three typefaces between 1888 and 1893: Golden, Troy, and Chaucer.

In 1891, Morris set up the Kelmscott Press with the objective of recapturing the beauty of incunabula. In the next seven years, the Kelmscott Press produced 53 books totaling 18,000 copies. Many featured illustrations by Morris’s lifelong friend and collaborator, the artist Edward Burne-Jones. The most celebrated Kelmscott work is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, commonly known as the Kelmscott Chaucer.

Morris died soon after the completion of the Kelmscott Chaucer in 1896. His legacy is a long one: as well as inspiring the work of other major fine presses of his period, his work with typefaces and at the Kelmscott Press remains influential in contemporary printing and book design.

Image: One of the opening pages of the Kelmscott Chaucer. The Kelmscott Press, 1896. British Library, C.43.h.19.