Collecting Kelmscott and William Morris on ABE

The online bookstore, Advanced Book Exchange, one of the largest seller of secondhand, antiquarian, and rare books, recently posted a short piece on “Collecting Kelmscott: William Morris & His Quest for Fine Books.” Admittedly an enticement for people to buy books offered by ABE’s booksellers, the article reads as follows:

More than 100 years after his death, William Morris – founder of the Kelmscott Press – remains an influential figure in design and art, and his Kelmscott fine press books are highly prized.

The textile designer, author and artist founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. Morris (1834-1896) published his own work as well as translations and reprints of mediaeval writing he believed should be read. A traditionalist in every sense of the word, Morris wanted to preserve the relationship between art and books. He detested the mechanisation of art during a period when the western world was embracing mechanisation.

Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an organization that strived to produce art reminiscent of the romantic, medieval eras.  These ideals were instrumental in everything that Morris did from the initiation of the Arts and Crafts movement in late 19th century England, the design and decoration of his famous Red House,  his design and manufacture of textiles and, of course, the Kelmscott Press.

Kelmscott Press was founded in a cottage where Morris set up three printing presses that he used to print books by traditional methods.  To maintain the traditional feel, Morris designed two typefaces based on 15th century fonts.  He also made his own paper to complete his handmade books.  Despite the painstaking effort put into each publication and the fact that Kelmscott was only in operation for seven years, the small press managed to produce more than 18,000 copies of more than 50 different works. 

In true fine press tradition, the Kelmscott print runs were short and the books were not cheap, but they were beautiful and exemplified the Arts and Crafts movement.  Kelmscott’s finest achievement is probably its edition of Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.  The books were designed by Morris himself and illustrated by fellow Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. It was the finest and most beautiful book of its day, containing 87 woodcut illustrations to accompany Chaucer’s masterful tales.

It doesn’t take an expert to point out the errors here (Morris was more than a “textile designer, author, and artist”; he was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; Burne-Jones did not illustrate al the Kelmscott books)—the point is that Morris and Kelmscott continue to interest people and are, if not actively collected, then actively offered by the booktrade. Case in point: the Kelmscott Works of Geoffrey Chaucer pictured here is priced at just over $95,000. More modest Kelmscott titles are considerably less expensive, in the $500 to $7,500 range; first editions of Morris’s writings are listed for as little as $100. If one had the money it would seem possible to amass if not a complete, well then a very extnesive, Morris collection in a matter of a few clicks of the mouse.

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