"The most celebrated private press in the history of printing"1 was founded by William Morris (1834-1896) in 1891. At age 56, Morris was internationally known for the furniture, stained glass, wallpaper, and textiles sold through his firm, Morris & Co; for his many literary works; and for founding the breakaway Socialist League.
Morris wanted to return to pre-Industrial production methods because he claimed printing had reached a low point. He embarked on what he termed his "typographical adventure" at his Oxfordshire home, Kelmscott Manor. Biographer Fiona MacCarthy explains that the Press was Morris' most personal project in both form and content: he executed detailed design work and supervised an overall aesthetic in order to publish his own writings and to distribute texts of great personal significance.
Admirers marvel at the artistry of the books, but the productivity of the Press is equally impressive. In just seven years, they produced over 22,000 copies of 53 titles. The most famous of these is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896), known as the Kelmscott Chaucer, which Secretary of the Press Sydney Cockerell identifies as their most important achievement.
Initially, Morris was so eager to start that he printed the first book in 1891 before Walter Crane's slated illustrations were even finished. The Glittering Plain, which appeared with engravings in 1894, was the only title printed twice at the Kelmscott Press.
The success of Kelmscott was due to the talents of men like editor F. S. Ellis (1830-1901), illustrator Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), and engraver W. H. Hooper (1834-1912). Morris originally hired the young Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962) to catalog his personal library but he "soon made himself indispensable"2 and was ultimately Morris' literary executor. His diary and records constitute the most significant primary sources available on the Press.
Upon his deathbed, Morris asked Cockerell to continue the Kelmscott Press. Cockerell wanted to close the Press to preserve the integrity and quality of Morris' publications. It took a year and a half to finish all existing projects and to close the Press.
Aesthetic of the Press
The Kelmscott style is very consistent, unlike some small presses which make separate design decisions for each title. All the volumes feature thick, handmade linen paper; Morris' ideal margin proportions; and durable, handsewn binding. On the Albion letterpress, Morris insisted on old-fashioned black ink so difficult to use that the printers threatened to strike.
Poems by the Way (1891) was the first Kelmscott book to appear in two colors. Love is Enough (1897), which also used blue ink, is one of just two tri-colored volumes by the Press.
Morris designed each of the three Kelmscott fonts. The Golden Legend (1892) uses the Press' first type, a roman now referred to as Golden. The black-letter Troy type is named after the book in which it first appeared. Chaucer type, a smaller version of Troy designed for use in the mammoth Chaucer, first appeared in The Order of Chivalry (1892).
The plain Kelmscott covers arguably belie their handsome contents, but they create a dramatic contrast with highly ornamented pages such as Morris' woodcut title and border found in Charles Algernon Swinburne's Atlanta in Calydon (1894).
The beauty of the Kelmscott books is unquestioned; the technical handiwork marks the highest standards of craftsmanship. It is also widely agreed that Morris almost single-handedly spurred the small and fine press movement. Interpretations of Kelmscott, however, are wildly divergent. Susan Thompson summarizes: "Its influence has had to be granted; its intrinsic value has been hotly debated since the days of Morris himself."3
One possible reading is to focus solely on aesthetic merits; for an example of the book as apolitical art object with beauty as its only goal, see the Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition catalog William Morris and His Circle: 25 January - 4 June 1989.
Most critics, however, debate whether the Kelmscott Press represents a reactionary conservativism or a radically progressive vision. Does this collection reveal a disturbing "fetish,"4 function as the stale "19th century equivalent of oldies radio,"5 or document the "significant cultural act" of a "radical craftsman" at work?6 Is there a discrepancy between Morris's Socialism and his Press or, as Elizabeth Carolyn Miller argues, "a concord between his aesthetics and his politics?"7
The Surprise Bequest
The Kelmscott Collection was given to the Ingalls Library as part of a surprise bequest to the Cleveland Museum of Art by William H. (1869-1937) and Julia Morgan Marlatt (1873-1939).
During their lives, they never contributed more than their CMA membership dues and they did not socialize with museum benefactors. Yet curator of paintings Henry Francis wrote to museum director William Milliken explaining that Julia was known to "frequent the Museum Sunday afternoons with her husband and watch quietly the enjoyment of others."9
The Marlatts bequethed one milliion dollars of their estate to CMA. Thanks to their generous donation, which included over three hundred books, the Ingalls Library boasts a nearly complete run of the Kelmscott Press. All fifty-three titles are represented; only volume six of William Morris' eight-volume collection of stories The Earthly Paradise is missing.
1. William S. Peterson, "Introduction," in A Note by William Morris (New York: Grolier Club/William Morris Society, 1996), xi.
2. Fiona MacCarthy, "William Morris: The Building of a Book," Matrix: A Review for Printers and Bibliophiles 15 (Winter 1995): 16.
3. Susan Thompson, "Kelmscott Press: Golden Type's Golden Touch?" Book Collector's Market 2 (August 1976): 12.
4. Douglas Dowd, "Meditations on the C-word," Contemporary Impressions 3 (Spring 1995): 7.
5. Dowd, 8.
6. Dowd, 7.
7. Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, "William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism," MODERNISM / modernity 15 (2008): 479.
8. Miller, 492.
9. Louis V. Adrean and Marsha A. Morrow, "A Quiet Bequest," Cleveland Art: The Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine, September 2006, 13.