The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted, also known simply as the Kelmscott Chaucer, is quite possibly the most beautiful book ever printed. This book, the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer, is the last publication of designer and craftsman William Morris, a leading figure in the arts and crafts movement, at his Kelmscott Press, in London. The book, completed in 1896, measures 11 3/8 x 16 5/8 in, 556 pages.
William Morris printed 42 books at the Kelmscott Press, all exquisite works, embracing the high degree of craftsmanship and design characteristic of the arts and crafts movement, before attempting the Chaucer. The books printed before the Kelmscott Chaucer are all beautiful works, with woodcut borders and intital capitals, printed on fine paper, some using the Golden typeface designed by Morris in 1890. These books were all, essentially, more objects than things actually meant to be read - they were done in print runs of 400-500, at the most, and priced accordingly. The best selling ones were later reprinted by major commercial printers at a more reasonable prices.
The Kelmscott Chaucer was intended to be the first of three truly monumental books - masterworks - published by the press, the other two being Jean Froissart's (c. 1338-1410) Chronicles and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
Work was begun on the Kelmscott Chaucer on 1 August 1894. Morris used University of Oxford's version of Chaucer's Works, edited by Walter Skeat. The book contains 87 woodcuts designed by Edward Burne-Jones and engraved by W. H. Hooper. Morris designed the ornamental borders. The book uses occasional subtle rubrication, just enough so that when used, it provides the proper emphasis. The printing of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted was completed on 8 May 1896 - it was the last major work Morris would ever complete. William Morris died at Kelmscott House on 3 October 1896.
Four hundred thirty eight copies of the Chaucer were printed, 425 on paper and 13 on vellum. Of the 425 copies on paper, 48 were bound in full pigskin by Thomas J. Cobden-Sanderson of the Doves Bindery. The paper version of the book originally sold for £20, the pigskin binding for £33, and the vellum for 120 guineas. Presently, a paper copy might fetch $30,000 - $35,000.
Due to the high demand and scarcity of this book, several facsimilie editions have been printed. The editions include one by World Publishing, Cleveland, 1958, one by Basilisk Press, London, 1975, and one by Octavo, available either on CD-ROM or as a digital file.
The World Publishing version is perhaps the most reasonable for the average lover of books. It has a cover done to look like the pigskin binding. The rubrication has been printed in black. It is reduced in size by about 1/3, which makes it much easier to hold the book. The price is relatively reasonable, often as little as $75, but more often around $125. It is a decent quality printing.
The Basilisk Press version is an exact reproduction, full size, with rubrication, printed in a limited edition of 500. It is a beautiful book, but also an expensive one, usually selling in the $1300-1500 range. Read it at your favorite major library.
The version published by Octavo is nice - one gets the feel of the original book, the texture of the page, the quality of the printing, along with extensive commentary and additional material realating to Morris. For the quality of the reproduction, it is a decent buy at $50. One flaw is that the text at the edge of the page (in the center of the binding) is often difficult to read. Another problem is that it is hard to read as intended unless you have a 21 inch monitor. One can read individual pages fine, but the two page spreads, as you would read an actual book, are just too small. In addition, Octavo offers large thumbnails (small images) of the entire book, for free, on their web site, at http://octavo.com/collections/projects/chkwks/index.html. This is not big enough to read the text, but does give a feel for the book.
This may seem like a lot of fuss for a book. Perhaps it is. Keep in mind, however, that it is one of, if not the most beautiful book printed in the English language. It is a stunning work of typography and design, yet also a surprising readable work. On each page, woodcut initials large and small mark the beginning of paragraphs and sections. Little leaves mark the beginnings of paragraphs, or note where the speaker changes. Many pages have thick ornate borders around the entire page, then smaller borders around the individual illustrations. The type and design are so incredibly fancy, yet so legible. It is truly a masterpiece of a book.