Books by the Kelmscott Press: The Douglas Schoenherr Donation
A selection of books and related ephemera published by the Kelmscott Press – all part of a recent donation by the late Douglas Schoenherr – is currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. An expert in 19th-century British art, Schoenherr served as Associate Curator in the Gallery's Prints and Drawings Department from 1986 to 1997. His donation, which also includes a large number of volumes from his personal library relating to artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, complements his earlier gift of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896) – the crowning achievement of the Kelmscott Press – as well as a collection of wallpaper samples produced by Morris & Company. Three of these samples are on display alongside the Kelmscott volumes.
The Kelmscott Press was established in 1891 in Hammersmith, London, by William Morris (1834–96), novelist, poet and leading figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris had become disillusioned by the declining standards of mechanized book production and sought to revive the skill of hand printing that had been achieved by 15th-century printers such as William Caxton (c.1422–92). As Morris would later write, the books “would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time … not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages, and of the earlier printing which took its place.”
Morris insisted that all elements of a Kelmscott book – including the binding, the paper, the ink, the typeface and the illustrations – should reflect his aesthetic ideal of integrated design. Most were printed on handmade linen paper, and the special thick, black ink favoured by Morris was made from traditional materials without chemical additives. The three typefaces used in Kelmscott books – Golden, Troy and Chaucer – were all designed by Morris himself.
Producing a Kelmscott book was a collaborative effort. Along with the typefaces, Morris was also responsible for the title pages, initials and borders. For volumes featuring illustrations, he commissioned designs from artists including Walter Crane (1845–1915), Arthur J. Gaskin (1862–1928) and Charles Gere (1869–1957). Most frequently, however, he commissioned work by Edward Burne-Jones, a prominent member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, who produced drawings for eleven of the fourteen illustrated Kelmscott volumes. Once finalized, all drawings would be transferred photographically onto woodblocks and then engraved by hand, usually by William Harcourt Hooper (1834–1912). The books were printed on Albion hand presses in limited editions, which usually numbered 200 to 500 copies on paper and 6 to 12 copies on vellum.
The Kelmscott volumes donated by Schoenherr offer an excellent overview of the Press' publications, beginning with its first book: a fantasy novel by Morris called The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891). The book was to include illustrations by Walter Crane, but – anxious to publish a first title – Morris abandoned this idea in favour of a smaller volume featuring borders and initials but no illustrations. Three years later, he issued the book in the originally envisioned, larger format, making it the only title that the Kelmscott Press printed twice.
The Press’ first illustrated book was The Golden Legend, published in three volumes in 1892. A 13th-century collection of saints’ lives, translated into English by William Caxton in 1483, the book was one of the most widely read in medieval Europe and one of Morris’ favourites. Along with a rich array of decorative borders and initials, the book included the earliest title page designed by Morris, as well as two wood-engraved illustrations by Burne-Jones, his first contributions.
Kelmscott books varied both in length and in their degree of ornamentation. Books such as Gothic Architecture: A Lecture for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1893) and Of the Friendship of Amis and Amile (1894), both authored by Morris, were typical of the small-format books produced by the Press. Both featured borders and initials but had no illustrations. The Press published three categories of authorship: works written by Morris, medieval English texts and English literary classics by authors whom Morris admired. The latter included works by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–92), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828–82).
Although Burne-Jones provided designs for most of the illustrated Kelmscott books, one exception is The Shepheardes Calendar: Conteyning Twelve Aeglogues, Proportionable to the Twelve Monethes of 1896, featuring twelve illustrations by the Birmingham-based artist Arthur J. Gaskin. Gaskin received a second commission – drawings for The Well at the World’s End (1896) – but Morris was dissatisfied with the effort and instead asked Burne-Jones to complete the work. The result was one of the Kelmscott’s finest volumes, with Burne-Jones contributing four illustrations, and Morris responsible for the title page, borders and initials.
By far the publisher’s most ambitious project and crowning achievement was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, completed a few months before Morris’s death in October 1896. Taking four years to finish, the book features 87 illustrations by Burne-Jones, a woodcut title page, 14 large borders, 18 frames for the illustrations and 26 initials designed by Morris. Printed in an edition of 425 copies on paper and 13 on vellum, the finished volume is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of book design. The Gallery’s copy features a binding by the acclaimed London workshop of Sangorski & Sutcliffe.
The Kelmscott Press continued to publish books following Morris’s death, completing eleven titles, including an eight-volume edition of Morris’ The Earthly Paradise in 1896–97 and The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, an epic poem by Morris about love and betrayal, in 1898. Work on the latter had started in 1895 and features initial letters and borders designed by Morris. Burne-Jones contributed two full-page illustrations.
The Kelmscott Press ceased operations in 1898, having published 53 titles. The final volume printed was A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press. Committed to the highest standards of craftsmanship throughout its relatively short life, the “typographical adventure” initiated by Morris was remarkably successful, producing some of the most beautiful books ever printed, reviving the idea of the book as a work of art, and giving rise to the private-press movement that flourished in England during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Douglas Schoenherr’s generous gift of Kelmscott books provides an opportunity for further exploration of this extraordinary legacy.
Beautiful and Useful: The Douglas Schoenherr Donation of Books Published by Kelmscott Press is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until 18 June 2023. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.