The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has acquired a copy of what it calls one of the most famous private press books in existence.
The 1896 edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer took approximately four years to produce, and features illustrations by Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones. The book, valued in the $100,000 range, will appear with other Kelmscott Press texts in a mini-exhibition this month to honour the title’s 119th anniversary. It is one of only 425 copies published by Kelmscott Press, which was founded in 1890 by English author and textile maker William Morris.
“Morris wanted to revive the traditional practices from the earliest days of the printing press as a reaction to what he considered shoddy practices of 19th-century book making. So he sourced out the best paper, designed his own typefaces, and recreated dyes using traditional recipes,” says Fisher librarian and exhibit co-curator John Shoesmith. “All the press’s books are wonderful – they just feel substantial when you hold one. But the Kelmscott Chaucer is really the masterpiece of the press. It’s a large book, it’s beautifully designed, and it’s just a wonderful marriage of text, ornamentation, and illustration.”
The library acquired the book from a Toronto-based antiquarian bookseller, who purchased it from a British dealer. Shoesmith says it’s a title that’s been on the library’s wish list for many years, but has previously been too expensive for them to afford.
“It comes up for sale from time to time. We were fortunate to be able to purchase it this year with specially designated acquisitions funds,” he says.
Also part of the exhibit are an 1892 edition of Defence of Guenevere; an 1897 copy of Love is Enough; or, The Freeing of Phatamond, a Morality; the press’s final publication from 1898, A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press together with a short description of the press; and a title Morris produced a year before founding Kelmscott, The roots of the mountains wherein is told somewhat of the lives of the men of Burgdale, their friends, their neighbours, their foemen and their fellows in arms. Displayed alongside these Kelmscott Press books is another of the library’s Chaucer titles – a 20th-century Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Canterbury Tales.
Kelmscott’s collected Chaucer, though, remains what the library calls “the jewel of the press.” It holds historical significance as an early collection of the works of a man largely considered the father of English literature, but also because Morris’s penchant for ornate, sumptuous editions is a sentiment echoed in the contemporary print versus ebook debate, says Shoesmith.
“The influence of the Kelmscott Chaucer, and the Kelmscott Press in general, cannot be underestimated,” Shoesmith says. “With all this talk about ebooks replacing the physical book, we’ve in fact seen a real renaissance in the craft and art of book making, much in the same way Morris’s efforts to create beautiful books were a reaction to changes wrought by the industrial age.”
The Kelmscott exhibition runs through the end of May.