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Note: The title and focus of this paper is: The Books of William Morris. However, it probably fits better here. Morris did many interesting design projects, not just book arts.

William Morris, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, was probably the most influential designer of the second half of the 19th century. He was an accomplished writer, designer, businessman, political activist, and conservationist. His design work spanned many fields: painting; stained glass; furniture; ceramics; books; wallpaper and textiles - thus one could have a house completely furnished in Morris designs. Morris's most visible accomplishments are in the field of book arts.

Morris's Life

William Morris was born to William Morris and Emma Shelton on 15 March 1834, at Elm House, Walthamstow, London. The third of nine children born to the affluent couple, William had a rather privileged upbringing. Morris Sr. was a partner in firm of bill brokers, which made him rather financially successful.

In 1840, the family moved to Woodsford Hall, a large house with plenty of forested land - it is thought that this is where Morris first found his love of organic forms and nature, as well as fantasy and myth. (Parry 13) Morris attended Marlborough College from February, 1848 until December, 1851, when he left, following a riot at the school. It is likely that he began to develop an interest in classical studies while at Marlborough, an interest that would be significant for the rest of his life. Morris was tutored privately, and entered Oxford with a considerable background in classics, in January of 1853, with the intent of joining the clergy. (Institute of Contemporary Arts 27)

Soon after arrival at Oxford, he met Edward Burne-Jones, who became a life-long friend and a collaborator on many books. Literature composed the bulk of Morris's studies, until he read John Ruskin's works on art. The chapter of The Stones of Venice, "On the Nature of Gothic", sowed a fascination so great that Morris and Burne-Jones went to France and the low countries on their summer vacations. Morris also developed an interest in the contemporary artists at this time, the Pre-Raphaelites: Holman Hunt, Rossetti, and Millais.

After their second trip to France, Morris and Burne-Jones realized that the clergy was not the right place for them, that they were better suited to the arts, Morris as an architect, Burne-Jones as a painter. Morris finished his degree at Oxford in November, 1855, and began studying architecture in the Oxford office of George Edmund Street, one of the premiere gothic architects of the day. After about eight months, Morris realized that he lacked the skill to be an architect, left Street, and went to London, where he moved in with Burne-Jones.

In London, Morris discovered that he too wanted to be an artist. He met his future wife, Jane Burden while Burne-Jones was painting the debating room at the Oxford Union. Morris published his first book of poems, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, in 1858, under the obvious influence of his new love interest. The book was not well received.

Morris and Burden were married in Oxford on 26 April 1859. They moved to a new house, at Bexleyheath, Kent, designed by architect Philip Webb, Red House, in 1860. Morris spent the next few years designing the interior, his first major design project.

The house became a center of the local art and literary scene. Burden gave birth to two daughters at the house, Jane Alice, in January, 1861, and Mary in March 1862. With the circle of artists, and the success Morris had had decorating Red House, he decided to start a design company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & co., in April 1861. Their early work focused on the sort of decoration that had been done for the Red House - embroidery and wall painting - but later also included tableware, furniture, stained glass, and tile.

The firm's first major commissions were for stained glass windows, for three churches, in Scarborough, Brighton, and Selsley, from architect George Frederick Bodley. This design work soon consumed all his time, forcing him, in 1865, to move from the Red House back to London. In London, Morris began working on poetry again, publishing his second book of poetry, The Life and Death of Jason, in 1867, which was very well received. This story was the first of a group of 24 that would make up The Earthly Paradise, a book published to major critical acclaim in 1870.

During this time, Morris continued his previous work in illuminated manuscript format. He traveled to Iceland in 1871, while working on translations of some of the Icelandic sagas, some that he would later produce as manuscripts. William Morris moved his family to Kelmscott Manor, a 16th century manor, in 1871.

The design firm was reorganized in 1875 as Morris & co., leaving Morris in charge. He became involved in socialist politics, which forced him to spend more time in London and less time in the country. Morris and Burden moved to a Georgian house overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith, in 1878, which they named "Kelmscott House", in honor of their country manor.

Most of Morris's energies in the 1880s were devoted to politics. During this time, however, he also spent considerable time preparing and organizing for his most major undertaking - a press, to design and publish books. Morris opened the Kelmscott Press in 1891, near his home, and spend the next years publishing some of the most beautiful books yet printed. Though his health was failing, he designed and printed 63 titles, before his death on 3 October 1896.

Manuscript Books

William Morris always had a great love for books, something that had developed at Oxford. His childhood visits to Canterbury Cathedral and the illuminated manuscripts there drew him to more visual books, from the beginning. As a designer, he was concerned with the forms of the books that he read, and like most things he dealt with, he wanted to create more perfect objects. For books this meant, at first, illuminated manuscripts, and later, beautiful printed books. He would make, in his lifetime, about 1500 illuminated and manuscript pages. (Parry 19)

The earliest surviving leaf by Morris is from 1857, during a time when he was experimenting in many media - illuminated leafs were a sort of Victorian hobby. Using watercolor and gold leaf on vellum, Morris tells part of the Brothers Grimm story, The Iron Man. It shows the heavy gothic influence on Morris's work, and also how interested he was in decorated borders and initial capitals, even from the beginning. It also shows how much more relaxed his work was to become - the writing looks very stressed, forced, not at all comfortable. Morris almost certainly realized this and set it aside, incomplete, for this reason.

Following the completion of The Earthly Paradise in 1869, Morris became interested in the Icelandic sagas. In 1869-70, Morris translated The Story of the Dwellers at Eyr. It is his first manuscript, mostly an exercise in calligraphy and composition. The calligraphy shows some improvement from his earlier works, showing evidence of his study of medieval manuscripts, but is still nowhere near the qualities he shows in his later works. Like most of his manuscripts, this one is incomplete.

The next book by Morris marked a turning point in his manuscript works. A Book of Verse, a collection of Morris's poems, is one of his few complete manuscripts, and his first collaborative one. (See attached figure 2, bottom.) The wide margins allow for the text to be clearer, and the floral ornamentation alludes at the borders in his later work, at the Kelmscott Press. Morris designed the entire book and did the calligraphy. Edward Burne-Jones did some of the illustrations, with the rest done by Charles Fairfax Murray. George Wardle did some of the ornamentation and all the illuminated initials.

This sort of collaboration was the way that Morris would work for almost all of the rest of his books, printed and manuscript. He would design the type, layout, and borders. He would have someone do the illustrations that he wanted, exactly in the manner that he wanted them. Though he did not do all the work, it was all his vision.

Morris continued an intense study of typography until about 1875. His next major work was an incomplete manuscript of Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a popular book of the time, completed 16 October 1872. The book was done entirely by Morris, with watercolor and gilding on vellum. The text looks clearer than his earlier works, and features considerable rubrication.

In this book, Morris becomes shows a greater awareness of design than his earlier books. The initial capitals stand out in a way that they actually make the text easier to read. The floral borders do not interfere so much with the legibility of the text and are actually specific flowers.

Morris continued to work with the design of calligraphy, translating Icelandic sagas. In King Hafbur and King Siward, 1873, and The Story of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue, 1874, he focuses entirely on the text, leaving the initial letters and floral borders only penciled in. He experiments with several styles of writing in each of these, emulating different scripts from different times.

The culmination of Morris's work with manuscript script is in the Odes of Horace, done with Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, 1874. The text, on vellum, is so crisp, so perfect - it shows the extent of his study of the Renaissance writing. Morris completed the text of this book. The parts that Morris illuminated are among his most detailed illuminations. It sets the stage perfectly for his next, final illuminated manuscript, The Aeneids of Virgil.

The Aeneids of Virgil, done with Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, 1875, completed later by Louise Powell and Graily Hewitt, is the masterpiece of Morris's study of calligraphy. The brightly colored borders and images show the extent of his study of the book as a complete, finished work. The book appears unified - the floral frame and images enhance the text, instead of distracting from it.

Morris did very little work in designing books until the late 1880s, spending much of his energy on politics, when he began learning to print books, that he might fulfill his dream of publishing books.

Preparations for the Kelmscott Press

William Morris began working again with typography as the editor of Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League, from 1885-1890. (Peterson Kelmscott 65) The design of Commonweal was generally relatively sparse, so contrary to much of Morris's design work. It gave him experience with movable type that would be so critical later - Morris claimed that the most important part of typography was the spacing of the characters, and the only way to do this perfectly was by hand.

Morris turned to the Chiswick Press, one of the fine printers of the day, the publisher of his earliest books, to learn printing. The three books he printed there, The House of Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountain, and The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue, hinted strongly at the direction of the Kelmscott Press typography.

The type used in The Story of Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountain, is a study in earlier fonts, ignoring most of the conventions of the day. The spacing in the latter, the later work, is tighter - these books were most excellent exercises in typography, though they show none of the floral borders and illuminated initial capitals that would be characteristic of the Kelmscott Press work.

The third book printed by Morris at Chiswick, The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue, was a rather curious experiment in typography - it was his attempt to work in a font like that used by William Caxton, the first English printer. The type is a recreation of that used in the late 15th century, with better spacing and better printing quality. This book was never offered for sale, and most of the sheets remained unbound until Morris's death. (Institute of Contemporary Arts 29)

At this time, Morris was also designing the first of three fonts he would create for the Kelmscott Press - Golden. Morris kept a large collection of manuscripts and early printed books, not so much as a book collection, but as a working reference library. Golden was based upon early 16th century Italian type. This was completed in 1890 and punched by Edward Prince, the premiere type cutter of the day, responsible for the physical manufacture of type for many of the fine presses at the turn of the century. Golden was completed in the winter of 1890-1891.

The professional response to Golden was less than good, as it could not be used in most commercial publications, due to the involved costs. It was initially available only in 14 point, and rather wide at that - it just took up too much space to be used in most books. (Peterson Kelmscott 90)

Morris could not find a paper available at the time that was suitable for the press, so he had his own made. The model he used was a paper from Bologna, circa 1473. Joseph Batchelor, a papermaker in Kent manufactured handmade paper from linen to this specification. (Duschnes 42) Morris designed three watermarks for this laid paper (a paper made using wires instead of a screen), the "Flower", the "Perch", and the "Apple". (Morris 1)

William Morris also wanted to print a few copies of his books on vellum, but could not find a vellum suitable for his needs, either. He found a manufacturer in Middlesex who would make the sort of vellum that he needed - "Kelmscott" and "Roman" vellums are still in manufacture and use to this day. (Peterson Bibliography xxiv)

The perfect ink also proved difficult to find - the American inks were too red, the English, too blue. Morris chose a thick, black ink, made by Janecke of Hanover for the press. It took longer to dry than other inks and it was so thick that fewer pages could be printed in a day, but it looked right to Morris.

Morris bought a hand printing press, one rather similar to what would have been used by William Caxton, and set it up in a shop near his home. On 12 January 1891, the Kelmscott Press was born.

The Kelmscott Press

The work of the Kelmscott Press, the last six years of his life, and the two following it, the staff of the press completing work designed by Morris but left incomplete, was a massive undertaking. 66 titles were printed, 23 of these written by Morris. 21,401 copies printed on paper, 677 on vellum. 644 initials, borders, frames, and the like, designed by Morris. The result: some of the most beautiful books that have yet been printed, still available to anyone who really wants them. (Parry 312)

Most of the books were either bound in full vellum or quarter linen. The full vellum binding is one where the entire cover of the book is vellum - it is designed to last. The quarter linen bindings, according to Morris, were designed for those individuals who wanted to have their copies rebound. The quarter linen binding used linen for the spine, but the boards of the book were just covered with paper. Occasionally, a custom binding would be designed for a few copies of one of the books, such as the pigskin binding for the masterwork, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted.

The first major book printed at the Kelmscott Press was The Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Morris, published by Bernard Quaritch, the premiere London antiquarian book dealer. The Golden Legend was intended to be the first publication of the Kelmscott Press, but due to the amount of time that it took Morris to transcribe William Caxton's words, it was delayed until 3 November 1892. Most of the beauty of The Golden Legend is in the design and layout of the text - the occasional wood engraving, by Edward Burne-Jones, are added decoration, and do not seem to fit in with the text.

At this time, the two other principal fonts of the Kelmscott Press were finished - Troy and Chaucer. Thus Morris had three fonts available to him for the books, three unique to the Press.

The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye by Raoul Lefevre was the next major work published at the Kelmscott, and the first use of the Troy type. Morris uses the floral designs sparingly, taking advantage of the white margins. The initial capitals are better integrated, and the text generally more readable, even though it is written in Middle English. The text is free of illustrations, relying entirely on the borders and the careful layout of the text. The Recuyell was completed 29 November 1892.

Morris continued to publish at the Kelmscott Press, devoting all his energy to its projects, which kept getting better and better. Not all volumes were massive, heavily illustrated works. Gothic Architecture, by William Morris, completed 21 October 1893, had the largest print run of any book at the press - three runs of 500 copies each. This high print run made the book relatively inexpensive, about 50 cents, and allowed for the correction of typographical errors, which just was not possible in books with one printing. It is free of illustrations - just a small 14 x 10 cm book with woodcut initial capitals and red marginal notes.

The Story of the Glittering Plain by William Morris, completed 17 February 1894, shows the direction that Morris's design was taking. The texts were becoming more and more illuminated - in the figure, the "I" of It is part of the floral border. The Story makes use of many floral borders and typographical devices that Morris would utilize in later works. (Walsdorf 7)

The last major publication of the Kelmscott Press, was William Morris's masterwork, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted, more commonly known as the Kelmscott Chaucer. Completed 26 June 1896, it is a massive work - 42 x 29 cm, 556 pages. It is the most significant collaboration between Morris and Burne-Jones - Burne-Jones created all the woodcuts for the book - approximately 80. (Robinson 35)

William Morris designed all the floral borders and initial capitals, as well as doing the layout of the type. He also designed a pigskin binding for 48 copies of the book. The Kelmscott Chaucer was to be the first of three landmark books by the press. Two years went into designing it, and it does stand out as a major design achievement.

Morris died unexpectedly at Kelmscott House, 3 October 1896, leaving many books unfinished. Most of these were completed by the staff of the press in the two years following. The most significant book that was left unfinished was Froissart's Chronicles. Intended to be the second major book, after the Chaucer, it shows the new directions Morris was taking in book design. Unlike earlier works, he is not working with the standard floral borders, but creating borders with new shapes, new meanings.

The Influence of Morris

The influence of William Morris's book design was far and wide. It can be seen in books like Daniel Berkeley Updike's Altar Book, 1896, that uses almost the exact same designs as Morris. Or it can also be seen in the far more widely published books by The Roycrofters, in East Aurora, New York, who printed similar books, using cheaper materials, at lower cost. (Riess 21)

Most of all, Morris created the market for books that were well designed. There simply was not a market for nice, well designed, "fine press" books before the Kelmscott Press. The Press, and the massive volume of books printed by it, changed the way people see books. Most of the fine books printed today keep many of the stylistic elements used by Morris 100 years ago.

The argument has been made that these are not books that normal people can afford… that they are only books for millionaires. Some, like the Kelmscott Chaucer, are, this is true. (Duschnes 35) But there are many books printed by the Press that can be had by any American of average income that really wants one. One can have a copy of Morris's Gothic Architecture for $700, or Life of Thomas Wolsey or The Sundering Flood for $750… or any number of other titles. They are available. (

Perhaps the most clear evidence of the lasting effects of Morris's work are the continued reprints of these books. Most of them have been reprinted many times, and all of them have been reprinted a few times. One can find some sort of edition of any of these books.

William Morris changed the way people thought about design and art. The Arts and Crafts Movement, an anti-modern tendency, showed the beauty that existed in handmade objects. Morris showed that books could be art, both as illuminated manuscripts and as limited edition texts.

Bibliography*& binding=*&isbn=&keywords=kelmscott+press&minprice=100& maxprice=&classic=on&submit=Begin+Search&currency=USD& mode=advanced&st=sr&ac=qr
(Search for keywords: Kelmscott Press, minimum price to display US$100)
3 November, 2002

Duschnes, Philip C., William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.
Brown University Library, Providence, R.I. 1960.

Institute of Contemporary Arts, ed., William Morris Today.
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1984.

Morris, William, A Note By William Morris On His Aims In Founding The Kelmscott Press.
Grollier Club, New York, 1996.

Parry, Linda, ed., William Morris
Phillip Wilson Publishers, for The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1996

Peterson, William S., A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press.
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984. (Peterson Bibliography)

Peterson, William S., The Kelmscott Press - A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure.
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991. (Peterson Kelmscott)

Riess, Jonathan, William Morris and the Revival of the Art and Craft of the Book.
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, 2000.

Robinson, Duncan, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Kelmscott Chaucer.
Moyer Bell Limited, London, 1986.

Walsdorf, John J., William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions.
Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ, 1983.

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