William Morris (1834-1896) wrote, “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” [Hopes and Fears for Art, Rare Books (EX) 3867.4.345] One of the objects Morris would not have objected to was his own Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, also known as the Kelmscott Chaucer after the press where it was printed.
In 1891, Morris set up three presses in his home, where he could design and print fine press editions. Over 50 books were completed. The Kelmscott Chaucer was one of the last and certainly one of the most successful.
The book was the product of many talented men besides Morris. The text was edited by Frederick Startridge Ellis (1830-1901), ornamented with 87 pictures designed by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), and engraved on wood by William Harcourt Hooper (1834-1912). It is interesting to noted that Burne-Jones’s drawings were photographed and the photographic images printed onto the woodblocks to ensure the fidelity of the engraving. The full-page woodcut title, fourteen large borders, eighteen borders or frames for the pictures, and twenty-six large initial words, along with the ornamental initial letters large and small were designed by Morris. For more on this, see The Life of William Morris by J. W. Mackail, v. 2, p. 326, Graphic Arts collection (GAX) PR5083.M25.
425 copies of the book were completed by a total of 11 master printers. Thanks to Morris’s expert salesmanship and personal magnetism, the entire edition was sold out before the books were finished on May 8 and issued on June 26, 1896.
Princeton University library owns four copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer. One is bound in full white pigskin and signed by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) at Doves Bindery in 1903. For more about Morris and his circle, the William Morris Society has a new blog at http://morrissociety.blogspot.com/