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William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 29602

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Although Morris turned with what seemed a sudden inspiration to the study of typography, it was, as we have already seen, no less than his other occupations a direct outcome of his early tastes. As long before as 1866 he had planned a folio edition of The Earthly Paradise with woodcut illustrations to be designed by Burne-Jones, and printed in a more or less medi?val fashion. Burne-Jones made a large number of drawings for the projected edition, and some thirty-five of those intended for the story of Cupid and Psyche were cut on wood by Morris himself. Specimen pages were set up, but the result was not technically satisfying and the idea was allowed to drop. Later, as we have seen, he had in mind an illustrated and sumptuous edition of Love is Enough, which also came to nothing, although a number of marginal decorations were drawn and engraved for it. After that, however, he apparently had been content to have his books printed in the usual way on machine-made paper with the modern effeminate type, without further remonstrance than emphatic denunciation of modern methods in printing as in other handicrafts. About 1888 or 1889, his Hammersmith neighbour, Mr. Emery Walker, whose love of fine printing was combined with practical knowledge of methods and processes, awakened in him a desire for conquest in this field also. He began again collecting medi?val books, this time with the purpose of studying their type and form. Among his acquisitions were a copy of Leonard of Arezzo's History of Florence, printed by Jacobus Rubens in 1476, in a Roman type, and a copy of Jensen's Pliny of the same year. Parts of these books Morris had enlarged by the hated process of photography, which in this case aided and abetted him to some purpose. He could thus study the individual letters and master the underlying principles of their design. He then proceeded to design a fount of type for himself with the aim of producing letters fine and generous in form, solid in line, without "preposterous thicks and thins," and not compressed laterally, "as all later type has grown to be owing to commercial exigencies." After he had drawn his letters on a large scale he had them reduced by photography to the working size and revised them carefully before submitting them to the typecutter. How minute was his attention to detail is shown in the little reproduction of one of his corrected letters with the accompanying notes. This first type of his, having been founded on the old Roman letters, is of course Roman in character and is very clear and beautiful in form. The strong broad letters designed on "something like a square" make easy reading, and there is nothing about the appearance of the attractive page to suggest archaism. The fount, consisting of eighty-one designs including stops, figures, and tied letters, was completed about the beginning of 1891, and on the 12th of January in that year, a cottage was taken at number 16 Upper Mall, near the Kelmscott House, a compositor and a pressman were engaged, and the Kelmscott Press began its career. The new type, which Morris called the "regenerate" or "Jenson-Morris" type, received its formal name, "Golden type," from Caxton's Golden Legend, which Morris had intended to reprint as the first work of the Press, and which was undertaken as soon as The Glittering Plain was out of the way. Caxton's first edition of 1483 was borrowed from the Cambridge University Library for the purpose and transcribed for the Press by the daughter of Morris's old friend and publisher, F. S. Ellis. No paper in the market was good enough for the great venture, and Morris took down to Mr. Batchelor at Little Chart a model dating back to the fifteenth century and had especially designed from it an unbleached linen paper, thin and tough, and somewhat transparent, made on wire moulds woven by hand for the sake of the slight irregularities thus caused in the texture, and "pleasing not only to the eye, but to the hand also; having something of the clean crisp quality of a new bank-note." For the three different sizes Morris designed three watermarks, an apple, a daisy, and a perch with a spray in its mouth. To print his strong type upon this handmade paper it was necessary to dampen the latter and use a hand-press, the ink being applied by pelt balls, insuring an equable covering of the surface of the type and a rich black impression. The quality of the ink was naturally of great importance and Morris yearned to manufacture his own, but for the time contented himself with some that he procured from Hanover and with which he produced excellent results. One of his happiest convictions in regard to his materials was that heavy paper was entirely unfit for small books.


Concerning spacing and the placing of the matter on the page he had pronounced theories derived from his study of ancient books, but directed by his own sound taste. He held that there should be no more white space between the words than just clearly cuts them off from one another, and that "leads" (strips of metal used to increase the space between the lines of type) should be sparingly employed. The two pages of a book, facing each other as it is opened, should be considered a unit, the edge of the margin that is bound in should be the smallest of the four edges, the top should be somewhat wider, and the front edge wider still, and the tail widest of all. The respective measurements of the most important of the Kelmscott books are, one inch for the inner margin, one and three-eighths inches for the head margin, two and three-quarter inches for the fore edge, and four inches for the tail. "I go so far as to say," wrote Morris, "that any book in which the page is properly put on the paper is tolerable to look at, however poor the type may be (always so long as there is no 'ornament' which may spoil the whole thing), whereas any book in which the page is wrongly set on the paper is intolerable to look at, however good the type and ornaments may be."




The Golden Legend, with its ornamented borders, its handsome initials, its woodcuts, and its twelve hundred and eighty-six pages, kept the one press busy until the middle of September, 1892. Before it was completed Morris had designed another fount of type greatly more pleasing to him than the first. This was called the Troy type from Caxton's Historyes of Troye, the first book to be issued in its larger size, and was the outcome of careful study of the beautiful types of Peter Schoeffer of Mainz, Gunther Zainer of Augsburg, and Anthony Koburger of Nuremberg. It was Gothic in character, but Morris strove to redeem it from the charge of unreadableness by using the short form of the small s, by diminishing the number of tied letters, and abolishing the abbreviations to be found in medi?val books. How far he succeeded is a disputed question, certainly not so far as to make it as easy reading for modern eyes as the Golden type. As time went on, however, the use of the Golden type at the Kelmscott Press became less and less frequent, giving place in the case of most of the more important books to either the Troy type or the Chaucer type, the latter being similar to the former, save that it is Great Pica instead of Primer size.

Morris's success in the mechanical application of his theories was surprising, or would have been surprising had he not constantly proven his genius for success. Mr. De Vinne quotes a prominent American typefounder as declaring after a close scrutiny of his cuts of type that he had triumphantly passed the pitfalls that beset all tyros and had made types that in lining, fitting, and adjustment show the skill of the expert. "A printer of the old school may dislike many of his mannerisms of composition and make-up," adds Mr. De Vinne, "but he will cheerfully admit that his types and decorations and initials are in admirable accord: that the evenness of colour he maintains on his rough paper is remarkable, and that his registry of black with red is unexceptionable. No one can examine a book made by Morris without the conviction that it shows the hand of a master."


Upon the artistic side it was natural that he should excel. His long practice in and love of design, his close study of the best models, and his exacting taste were promising of extraordinary results. None the less there is perhaps more room for criticism of his book decoration than of his plain bookmaking. He was convinced, as one would expect him to be, that modern methods of illustrating and decorating a book were entirely wrong, and he argued with indisputable logic for the unity of impression to be gained from ornaments and pictures forming part of the page, in other words, being made in line as readily printed as the type itself and corresponding to it in size and degree of blackness. He argued that the ornament to be ornament must submit to certain limitations and become "architectural," and also that it should be used with exuberance or restraint according to the matter of the book decorated. Thus "a work on differential calculus," he says, "a medical work, a dictionary, a collection of a statesman's speeches, or a treatise on manures, such books, though they might be handsomely and well printed, would scarcely receive ornament with the same exuberance as a volume of lyrical poems, or a standard classic, or such like. A work on Art, I think, bears less of ornament than any other kind of book (non bis in idem is a good motto); again, a book that must have illustrations, more or less utilitarian, should, I think, have no actual ornament at all, because the ornament and the illustration must almost certainly fight." He designed all his ornaments with his own hand, from the minute leaves and flowers which took the place of periods on his page, to the full-page borders, titles, and elaborate initials. He drew with a brush, on a sheet of paper from the Press marked with ruled lines, showing the exact position to be occupied by the design. "It was most usual during the last few years of his life," says Mr. Vallance, "to find him thus engaged, with his Indian ink and Chinese white in little saucers before him upon the table, its boards bare of any cloth covering, but littered with books and papers and sheets of MS. He did not place any value on the original drawings, regarding them as just temporary instruments, only fit, as soon as engraved, to be thrown away." Time and trouble counted for nothing with him in gaining the desired result. But though his ornament was always handsome, and occasionally exquisite, he not infrequently overloaded his page with it, and-preaching vigorously the necessity of restraint-allowed his fancy to lead him into garrulous profusion. Despite his medi?val proclivities, his designs for the borders of his pages are intensely modern. Compare them with the early books by which they were inspired, and their flowing elaboration, so free from unexpectedness, so impersonal, so inexpressive, suggests the fatal defect of all imitative work and fails in distinction. But he was individual enough in temper if not in execution, and he brooked no conventional restriction that interfered with his doing what pleased him. For example, the notion of making the border ornaments agree in spirit with the subject matter of the page was not to be entertained for a moment when he had in mind a fine design of grapes hanging ripe from their vines and a page of Chaucer's description of April to adorn.

During the life of the Kelmscott Press, a period of some half dozen years, Morris made six hundred and forty-four designs. The illustrations proper, all of them woodcuts harmonising in their strong black line with the ornaments and type, were made, with few exceptions, by Burne-Jones. His designs were nearly always drawn in pencil, a medium in which his most characteristic effects were obtained. They were then redrawn in ink by another hand, revised by Burne-Jones, and finally transferred to the block again by that useful Cinderella of the Kelmscott Press, photography. It is obvious that the Kelmscott books, whatever fault may be found with them, could not be other than remarkable creations with Morris and Burne-Jones uniting their gifts to make each of them such a picture-book as Morris declared at the height of his ardour was "one of the very worthiest things toward the production of which reasonable men should strive."

The list of works selected to be issued from the Press is interesting, indicating as it does a line of taste somewhat narrow and tangential to the popular taste of the time. Before the three volumes of The Golden Legend ("the Interminable" it was called) were out of his hands, Morris had bought a second large press and had engaged more workmen with an idea in mind of printing all his own works beginning with Sigurd the Volsung. He had already, during 1891, printed in addition to The Glittering Plain, a volume of his collected verse entitled Poems by the Way, the final long poem of which, Goldilocks and Goldilocks, he wrote on the spur of the moment, after the book was set up in type, to "plump it out a bit" as it seemed rather scant. During the following year, before the appearance of The Golden Legend, were issued a volume of poems by Wilfrid Blunt, who was one of his personal friends; the chapter from Ruskin's Stones of Venice on "The Nature of the Gothic," with which he had such early and such close associations, and two more of his own works, The Defence of Guenevere and The Dream of John Ball. In the case of the four books written by himself he issued in addition to the paper copies a few on vellum. All these early books were small quartos and bound in vellum covers. Immediately following The Golden Legend came the Historyes of Troye, two volumes in the new type, Mackail's Biblia Innocentium, and Caxton's Reynarde the Foxe in large quarto size and printed in the Troy type. The year 1893 began with a comparatively modern book, Shakespeare's Poems, followed in rapid succession by Caxton's translation of The Order of Chivalry, in one volume with The Ordination of Knighthood, translated by Morris himself from a twelfth-century French poem; Cavendish's Life of Cardinal Wolsey; Caxton's history of Godefrey of Boloyne; Ralph Robinson's translation of Sir Thomas More's Utopia; Tennyson's Maud; a lecture by Morris on Gothic Architecture, forty-five copies of which he printed on vellum; and Lady Wilde's translation of Sidonia the Sorceress from the German of William Meinhold, a book for which both Morris and Rossetti had a positive passion, Morris considering i

t without a rival of its kind, and an almost faultless reproduction of the life of the past. The year ended with two volumes of Rossetti's Ballads and Narrative Poems, and The Tale of King Florus and Fair Jehane, translated by Morris from the French of a little volume that forty years before had served to introduce him to medi?val French romance and had been treasured by him ever since.





"After this continuous torrent of production," says Mr. Mackail, "the Press for a time slackened off a little," but the output in 1894 consisted of ten books as against the eleven of the previous year. The first was a large quarto edition of The Glittering Plain, printed this time in the Troy type and illustrated with twenty-three pictures by Walter Crane. Next came another little volume of medi?val romance, the story of Amis and Amile, translated in a day and a quarter; and after this, Keats's Poems.

In July of the same year the bust of Keats, executed by the American sculptor, Miss Anne Whitney, was unveiled in the Parish Church of Hampstead, the first memorial to Keats on English ground. The scheme for such a memorial had been promoted in America, Lowell being one of the earliest to encourage it, and a little notice of the ceremony was printed at the Kelmscott Press with the card of invitation. Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon followed Keats in a large quarto edition. Next came the third volume of the French romances containing The Tale of the Emperor Constans and The History of Oversea. At this point Morris returned again to the printing of his own works, and the next book to be issued from the Press was The Wood beyond the World, with a lovely frontispiece by Burne-Jones representing "the Maid," the heroine of the romance, and one of the most charming of the visionary women created by Morris. The Book of Wisdom and Lies, a Georgian story-book of the eighteenth century, written by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, and translated by Oliver Wardrop, was the next stranger to come from the Press, and after it was issued the first of a set of Shelley's Poems. A rhymed version of The Penitential Psalms found in a manuscript of The Hours of Our Lady, written in the fifteenth century, followed it, and The Epistola de Contemptu Mundi, a letter in Italian by Savonarola, the autograph original of which belonged to Mr. Fairfax Murray, completed the list of this prolific year. The year 1895 produced only five volumes, the first of them the Tale of Beowulf, which Morris with characteristic daring had translated into verse by the aid of a prose translation made for him by Mr. A. J. Wyatt. Not himself an Anglo-Saxon scholar, Morris was unable to give such a rendering of this chief epic of the Germanic races as would appeal to the scholarly mind, and his zeal for literal translation led him to employ a phraseology nothing short of outlandish. At the end of the book he printed a list of "words not commonly used now," but his constructions were even more obstructive than his uncommon words. In the following passage, for example, which opens the section describing the coming of Beowulf to the land of the Danes, only the word "nithing" is defined in the index, yet certainly the average reader may be expected to pause for the meaning:

So care that was time-long the kinsman of Healfdene

Still seethed without ceasing, nor might the wise warrior

Wend otherwhere woe, for o'er strong was the strife

All loathly so longsome late laid on the people,

Need-wrack and grim nithing, of night-bales the greatest.

Morris himself found his interest wane before the work was completed, but he made a handsome quarto volume of it, with fine marginal decorations, and an exceptionally well-designed title-page. A reprint of Syr Percyvelle of Gales after the edition printed by J. O. Halliwell from the MS. in the library of Lincoln Cathedral, a large quarto edition of The Life and Death of Jason; two 16mo volumes of a new romance entitled, Child Christopher and Goldilands the Fair; and Rossetti's Hand and Soul, reprinted from the Germ, brought the Press to its great year 1896. This year was to see the completion of the folio Chaucer, which since early in 1892 had been in preparation, and had filled the heart of Morris with anxiety, anticipation, and joy. Before it came from the press three other books were issued. Herrick's Poems came first. Then a selection of thirteen poems from Coleridge, "a muddle-brained metaphysician, who by some strange freak of fortune turned out a few real poems amongst the dreary flood of inanity which was his wont!"

The poems chosen were, Christabel, Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Love, A Fragment of a Sexton's Tale, The Ballad of the Dark Ladie, Names, Youth and Age, The Improvisatore, Work without Hope, The Garden of Boccaccio, The Knight's Tomb, and Alice du Clos. The first four were the only ones, however, concerning which Morris would own to feeling any interest. The Coleridge volume was followed by the large quarto edition of Morris's latest romance, The Well at the World's End in two volumes, and then appeared the Chaucer, the mere printing of which had occupied a year and nine months. The first two copies were brought home from the binders on the second of June, in a season of "lots of sun" and plentiful apple-blossoms, during which Morris was beginning to realise that the end of his delight in seasons and in books was fast approaching.

Mr. Ellis has declared the Kelmscott Chaucer to be, "for typography, ornament, and illustration combined, the grandest book that has been issued from the press since the invention of typography." Morris lavished upon it the utmost wealth of his invention. The drawing of the title-page alone occupied a fortnight, and the splendid initial letters were each an elaborate work of art. The ornament indeed was too profuse to be wholly satisfactory, especially as much of it was repeated; nevertheless, the book was one of great magnificence and the glee with which Morris beheld it is not to be wondered at. The Chaucer type had been specially designed for it, and Burne-Jones had made for it eighty-seven drawings, while Morris himself designed for it the white pigskin binding with silver clasps, executed at the Doves Bindery for those purchasers who desired their elaborate and costly volume in a more suitable garb than the ordinary half holland covers which gave it the appearance of a silken garment under a calico apron.

During the remainder of the year 1896 the Press issued the first volumes of the Kelmscott edition of The Earthly Paradise, a volume of Latin poems (Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis), the first Kelmscott book to be printed in three colours, the quotation heading each stanza being in red, the initial letter in pale blue, and the remaining text in black: The Floure and the Leafe and The Shepherde's Calender. Before The Shepherde's Calender reached its completion, however, Morris was dead, and the subsequent work of the Press was merely the clearing up of a few books already advertised. The first of these to appear was the prose romance by Morris entitled The Water of the Wondrous Isles: this was issued on the first day of April, 1897, with borders and ornaments designed entirely by Morris save for a couple of initial words completed from his unfinished designs by R. Catterson-Smith. To this year belong also the two trial pages made for the intended folio edition of Froissart, the heraldic borders of which far surpass any of the Chaucer ornaments, and the two old English romances, Sire Degravaunt and Syr Ysambrace. In 1898 came a large quarto volume of German woodcuts, and three more works by Morris, a small folio edition of Sigurd the Volsung, which was to have been a large folio with twenty-five woodcuts by Burne-Jones; The Sundering Flood, the last romance written by Morris, and a large quarto edition of Love is Enough. These were followed by a "Note" written by Morris himself on his aims in starting the Kelmscott Press, accompanied with facts concerning the Press, and an annotated list of all the books there printed, compiled by Mr. S. C. Cockerell, who, since July, 1894, had been secretary to the Press. This was the end.[2]

Specimen Page from the Kelmscott "Froissart"

(Projected Edition)

Although Morris not only neglected commercial considerations in printing his books, lavishing their price many times over in valuable time and labour and the actual expenditure of money to secure some inconspicuous detail; but defied commercial methods openly in the character of his type, the quality of his materials, and the slowness of his processes, the Kelmscott Press testified, as most of his enterprises did testify, to the practical worth of his ideals. Quite content to make just enough by his books to continue printing them in the most conscientious and desirable way he knew, he gradually obtained from them a considerable profit. The Press had early been moved to quarters larger than the first occupied by it, and three presses were kept busy. By the end of 1892 Morris had become his own publisher, and after that time all the Kelmscott books were published by him except in cases of special arrangement. A few copies, usually less than a dozen, of nearly all the books were printed on vellum and sold at a proportionately higher price than the paper copies. The volumes were bound either in vellum or half holland, these temporary and unsatisfactory covers probably having been chosen on account of the strength and slow-drying qualities of the ink used, a note to the prospectus of the Chaucer stating that the book would not be fit for ordinary full binding with the usual pressure for at least a year after its issue. The issue prices charged for the books were not low, but certainly not exorbitant when time, labour, and expense of producing them are taken into consideration. They were prizes for the collector from the beginning, the impossibility of duplicating them and the small editions sent out giving them a charm and a value not easily to be resisted, and Morris himself and his trustees adopted measures tending to protect the collector's interests. After the death of Morris all the woodblocks for initials, ornaments, and illustrations were sent to the British Museum and were accepted, with the condition that they should not be reproduced or printed from for the space of one hundred years. The electrotypes were destroyed. The matter was talked over with Morris during his lifetime and he sanctioned this course on the part of the trustees, its aim being to keep the series of the Kelmscott Press "a thing apart and to prevent the designs becoming stale by repetition." While there is a fair ground for the criticism frequently made that a man urging the necessity of art for the people showed inconsistency by withdrawing from their reach art which he could control and deemed valuable, it must be remembered that in his mind the great result to be obtained was the stirring up the people to making art for themselves. Morris rightly counted the joy to be gained from making a beautiful thing as far higher than the joy to be gained from seeing one. He was never in favour of making a work of art "common" by reproducing or servilely imitating it. He had shown the printers of books his idea of the way they should manage their craft, now let them develop it themselves along the lines pointed out for them. And whether he was or was not consistent in allowing the works of the Kelmscott Press to be cut off from any possibility of a large circulation, his was the temperament to feel all the delight to be won from exclusive ownership. He had the true collector's passion for possession. If he was bargaining for a book, says his biographer, he would carry on the negotiation with the book tucked tightly under his arm, as if it might run away. His collection of old painted books gave him the keenest emotions before and after his acquisition of them. Of one, which finally proved unattainable, he wrote, "Such a book! my eyes! and I am beating my brains to see if I can find any thread of an intrigue to begin upon, so as to creep and crawl toward the possession of it." It is no matter for wonder if in imagination he beheld the love of bibliophiles for his own works upon which he had so ardently spent his energies, and was gratified by the prevision.

Whether the Kelmscott books will increase or decrease in money value as time goes on is a question that stirs interest in book-buying circles. They have already had their rise and ebb to a certain extent, and the prices brought by the copies owned by Mr. Ellis at the sale of his library after his death indicate that a steady level of interest has been reached among collectors for the time being at least; only five of the copies printed on paper exceeding prices previously paid for them. The presentation copy on vellum of the great Chaucer brought five hundred and ten pounds, certainly a remarkable sum for a modern book, under any conditions, and nearly a hundred pounds more than the highest price which Morris himself up to the summer of 1894 had ever paid for even a fourteenth-century book. The paper copy of the Chaucer sold at the Ellis sale for one hundred and twelve pounds and a paper copy in ordinary binding sold in America in 1902 for $650, while a paper copy in the special pigskin binding brought $950 the same year. The issue price for the four hundred and twenty-five paper copies was twenty pounds apiece, and for the eight copies on vellum offered for sale out of the thirteen printed, a hundred and twenty guineas apiece. The posthumous edition of Sigurd the Volsung, the paper copies of which were issued at six guineas apiece, brought at the Ellis sale twenty-six pounds. News from Nowhere, issued at two guineas, has never yet brought a higher price than the five pounds, fifteen shillings paid for it in 1899, while Keats's Poems issued at one pound, ten shillings, rose as high as twenty-seven pounds, ten shillings, also in 1899. As a general measure of the advance in the Kelmscott books since the death of Morris, it may be noted that the series owned by Mr. Ellis, excluding duplicates, and including a presentation copy of Jason and two fine bindings for the paper and the vellum Chaucer, represented a gross issue price of six hundred and twelve pounds, ten shillings, and realised two thousand, three hundred and sixty-seven pounds, two shillings. For one decade of the life of a modern series that is a great record, and it would be a rash prophet who should venture to predict future values.

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