William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer on Display in Buffalo, NY

If you are in Buffalo, New York, this month, be sure to check out the Central Library at Lafayette Square, which will be presenting an exhibit of entitled “The Ideal Book–William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Included in the exhibit is an original copy of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, along with books produced by the Roycroft Press.

My University library has a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, but I’ve never seen an original up close. The facsimile itself is nothing to sneeze at – it’s a gorgeous book. It never hurts to add it to your Christmas list, though $650 for the gorgeous Folio Society edition might be a bit steep (though it pales in comparison to the real deal – the genuine article recently sold in New York for $160,000 USD). There are some nice editions available on Amazon.com for considerably less, though. I got my sister this very pretty edition (which only includes the Canterbury Tales, but it’s a lovely hardbound edition) for under $20 a couple of years ago. I’m afraid I would dissolve into tears if my daughter tore up a folio edition, but at less than $20, this copy is probably just the ticket for a family with small children.

The Kelmscott Chaucer gives readers a sensual experience. I still remember the first time I picked it up and thought “this is what a book should be like.” Sir Edward Burne-Jones illustrations are stunning, and the borders have exquisite details that the eye can follow for hours. In general, I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to my books. I know that there have been many tomes written on decorating with books, etc., but I personally believe most books really aren’t that attractive. They take up too much space! As a result, I tend to either borrow from the library or read eBooks. There are not that many books I consider worth having physical copies of, but this is one of them. As Morris said, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This is certainly an item that any fan of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelites would be thrilled to find under the tree.

For more information on the Kelmscott Chaucer, visit the Buffalo Library’s exhibition website. The Kelmscott Chaucer will be on display until January 30, 2011

Title Page of the Kelmscott Chaucer

The Kelmscott edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered by many specialists in antiquarian books to be one of the finest works of English book production. Without a dout it certainly was the most impressive achievement of Morris’ Kelmscott Press.

The Kelmscott Chaucer was a monumental undertaking that severely taxed William Morris and his colleagues. By the time Morris began designing the title page for the volume in February 1896, his health was poor and he was suffering from extreme exhaustion. His friend Sir Edward Burne-Jones was afraid Morris would be unable to complete the project, remarking “I am getting very anxious about Morris and about the Chaucer. he has not done the title-page yet, which will be such a rich page of ornament, with all the large lettering. I wish he would not leave it any longer” (as quoted in Zaczek, 32).

Morris did complete the project in May of that year, but at the expense of his health. Burne-Jones assistant remarked during the process that Morris appeared “very ghostlike, feeble and old looking”(32). The Chaucer was released for publication in June, but the damage to Morris fragile health had already been done. He died only four months later.

The title page, with its richly interwoven grape vines remains one of Morris’ crowning achievements as a draughtsman and a testament to his avility to imagine incredibly organic patterns.

Kelmscott Chaucer

The term is drawing to a close and I’ve been marking exams in the library 24/7. This afternoon I took a bit of a break from marking and wandered over to the Chaucer section, where I came across a stunning facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition of the works of Chaucer.

The illustrations are by Edward Burne Jones. Considering the size of the volume (554 pages) there are a remarkeable number of drawings. (the book also includes a glossary, which can be quite helpful if it’s been a while since you last read Middle English!). What really struck me was that Burne-Jones never really repeats a border. I am truly in awe that someone could be so creative!
I would love to get a copy, but after doing a brief search on Amazon, I discovered that this lovely volume has gone out of print (if I’m wrong, please let me know!). Beautiful books like this are so inspiring to kids–the difference between reading a fantastic book like this and a dull paperback is immense. Maybe if there were more books like this around, people would be more inclined to pick up the works of Chaucer!