Lecture: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

At the end of my practicum at the Cleveland Museum of Art in April 2009, I gave this lecture at two events held in CMA’s Ingalls Library. It covered the Chaucer’s exquisite production, the storied fight for its printing and distribution rights, and its lasting influence on fine presses. It touched on the collection’s provenance, William Morris’ biography, a history of the Press, and Victorian printing methods. I led a hands-on exploration of the Kelmscott style, from ink to bindings and I concluded with a discussion on how to interpret the Kelmscott Press.


1. Introductions
Introduce myself
Ask everyone to introduce themselves: who, where, book strength/interest, particular Qs/knowledge of KP

2. Donors: Marlatt
pass around article

The Kelmcott 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).

The acquired their wealth through William’s Cleveland law practice and, according to their friend Edwin E. Miller, Julia’s “thrifty” financial planning.1 He died suddenly en route home from the couple’s trip to the Smoky Mountains. Unbeknownst to anyone until after Julia’s 1939 suicide, the childless Marlatts bequeathed $1 million of their estate to CMA.

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.”2

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 Louis V. Adrean and Marsha A. Morrow, “A Quiet Bequest,” The Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine, September 2006, 13.
2 Adrean and Morrow, 13.

3. William Morris Bio / Founding of the Press

Oxford 1853-5
-met E. Burne-Jones


-Apprentice Gothic revivalist architect G. E. Street
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine: poetry, decorative arts

-Morris & Co.: textiles, furniture, wallpapers
D. G. Rossetti

-writing socialist fiction: utopian, epic, country

-Purchased Kelmscott Manor with Rossetti (place of affair)

Kelmscott House
-26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, London
-named for the Oxfordshire summer home (K. Manor_

-Picture of it in News to Nowhere
Locate and show to group

Morris’ mother’s family buried in church in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire.

By 1870s
-writing socialist political manifestoes

-Socialist League

Commonweal organ

-Arts and Crafts exhibit

-Founded the Press

4. Versus Victorian Printing Methods
Industrial era:
-Mass reading audiences (mostly via newspapers, aka Penny Press, but also books)

Iron Press over Wooden Press
Charles Stanhope 1803
-screw lever
-larger platen

Lots of small improvements
1813 in Philadelphia, the Columbia (levers not screw to lower platen onto chase)

Richard Cope brought Columbian to England, invented his own Albion press in 1822
**This is Morris’ Press: a 19c press** hypocrisy? unrecognized debt to industrialization?
-the toggle lowered straight and used a spring to pop back into place
-later, a counterweight
Show picture of Columbian

-save a mould of a whole page for later printing
-saved type
-use electric current through the metal-bearing solution to make a mold

Responses to new technologies
fear of redundancy (job loss)

Konig’s steam press experiments led to his invention with Andrew Bauer (Germans in England) of the cylinder press
-rotary with a steam engine
-after 1810

“perfected” machine (print 2 sides)
-1820 Cowper and Applegarth: 1000 pages per hour over the 250 per hour of a hand press
-by 1828, 4,000/hour
-soon: 8,000/hour

Need cheaper paper, too.

In 1788, roll paper (over sheets)

Rotary press + Fourdrinier machine –> web-fed press by William Bullock 1863

1843 Freidrich Gottlob Keller
-use wood pulp not rags
-cheaper, advantaged places like US with lots of forests

Automated Typecast/Composition

David Bruce 1838
-automated typecaster: up to 20,000 pieces per day vs. at most 7,000 by hand

Linn Boyd Benton’s Pantograph in 1885 –> Ottmar Mergenthaler’s 1886 Linotype
simultaneously cast and compose

took off worldwide, almost 30,000 by 1915
Monotype created by Lanston around 1890s allowed for a while galley to be cast at once.

Price of brooks DROPPED.

Lithography, illustration.
In 1851, the first cylinder lithograph machine in Britain
very close to 20c offset roller method
Photography taking off
In 1882, machine-sewn binding and adhesives: very cheap.

In 1891, Morris chooses to use an Albion handpress on handmade paper.

5. The KP Style

Give everyone a book to find and look at each feature

Start with BINDING
vellum (mostly with ties)
quarter-holland cloth with blue paper on boards


flower 1 – John Ball
flower 2 – Reynard
apple – Earthly Paradise
perch – Florus and Jehane

deckled edges

also some on VELLUM

folio – Sigurd, Chaucer
quarto – Glittering Plain, Poems by the Way, Proteus, Ruskin, most of them
octavo – Biblio innocent, Shakes, News from Nowhere, Wolsey, Utopia, Maud, DG Rossetti, Keats

pushes into paper

MacCarthy about pressman striking – thick, iron gall

Burne-Jones drawing woodcuts by W H Hooper – in the age of lithography.

2 – Poems by the Way 1st
3 – only Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis and Love is Enough

engraver/type designer Emery Walker
punch cutter Edward Prince
[explain how type is made]

Golden – based on Nicolaus Jenson’s 16c Venetian type – Glitt Plain
Troy & Chaucer – blackletter Gothic style but more legible than 16c German types – Troy and Chaucer

When the Troy was delivered by Jan 1892 he thought he’d use it for Chaucer, but after some trial pages “It then became evident that the type was too large for a Chaucer, and Mr. Morris decided to have it recut in the size known as pice. By the end of June he was thus in possession of the type which in the list issued in Dec 1892, he named the Chaucer type…” (Cockerell pgs 34-35)

Walk through a book with colophon, table of contents, flosses, etc.

Have people point out

about 2 years into it

5. Kelmscott Chaucer
Perfect candidate for the greatest KP book:
Morris discovered Chaucer at Oxford. The medievalism, the arguable populism, the native English tongue.

Cost of production was 7217 pound, 11 d


-Arts and Crafts exhibition in Oct and Nov 1893 – showed specimen pages of book (differ slightly from real book (Cockerell))

advertising early on:
-Not until 8 Aug 1894 was first sheet printed at 14, Upper Mall. On 8 Jan 1895 “another press was started at 21, Upper Mall, and from that time two presses were almost exclusively at work on the Chaucer.” (Cockerell)

-”On May 8, a year and 9 months after the printing of the first sheet, the book was completed. On June 2 the first two copies were delivered to Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Mr. Morris. Mr. Morris’ copy is now at Exeter College, Oxford, with other book printed at the Kelmscott Press” (Cockerell)


-”Ellis, just before traveling to Cambridge, wrote to Francis Jenkinson on 17 April 1892m, ‘I shall also take the opportunity of calling on Mr. Skeat if he is in Cambridge… [for ideas]” (Peterson, p 108)

-Walter W Skeat, prof of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge U “was in fact at that moment preparing his monumental edition of Chaucer, which the Clarendon Press was to begin publishin in 1894, and it must have been immediately obvious to Ellis and Morris that this was the text they were searching for. But securing permission to reprint it from the Delegates of the Oxford Univ Press provided to be unsuitably difficult.

1. NO
The first gave a negative response in Nov 1892, Skeat suggested “he might reprint the first edition of Chaucer”

req renewed May 1894 “to reprint the Oxford text of Chaucer…” In exchange for a contribution (Peterson, p 109) result: “again without effect” (Peterson, p 108)

-Morris’ letter of clarification Aug 1894 said “This book I hope to make a specially beautiful one as to typography and decoration, and I naturally wish to make the text as good as possible. I ask therefore to be allowed to avail myself of the corrections of errors which Professor Skeat’s learning and acumen are making public, though we (Mr. F. S. Ellis, the editor, and myself) by no means intend to produce a literal reprint of his text.” And would acknowledge Skeat… “I should add that it is impossible that the book could come into competition with the text now being published at the University Press, as only 325 copies will be issued, at a high price (20 pound), and without notes or commentary. It is intended to be essentially a work of art” (Peterson, p 109)
-Oct 1894 Delegates gave permission to use with acknowledgement to Skeat and Delegates
-Meanwhile, Morris started printing Canterbury Tales from the Ellesmere manuscript


2 years later, self-published
Another major problem with which Morris had to wrestle while producing the Chaucer was his business relationship with Bernard Quaritch, who had published three of the early KP books (A7, A8, and A10) and had hoped to publish the Chaucer as well. Morris was annoyed when Quaritch raised the price of The Golden Legend on the day of publication (see NOTES for A7) and eventually decided to publish future KP books himself; hence their negotiations over the Chaucer were often tense and suspicious in tone.

–2 years later, self-published–
The first serious misunderstanding arose in August 1894 when Quaritch in effect undersold Morris by discounting at a higher rate to dealers.

‘Since as I understand now, your circular has already been sent out, I am driven to offer the Chaucer to the trade at 20 per cent discount,’ Morris wrote to Quaritch on
16 August 1894. Furthermore, Morris declined to supply him with ‘any more copies, beyond the 63 already booked, at a higher discount than 15 percent until all my trade customers have been supplied by me’ (BQ). Quaritch grudgingly accepted these new terms because he had no choice but to do so, but he complained to his son on 20 August, ‘Mr. Wm. Morris will call on me tomorrow; he is laying down the law to me about the Chaucer, – and I must submit. / This has cooled my ardour to obtian the transfer of his publications from Reeves & Turner. Mr. Morris’ success has turned him into a despot” (Peterson quoting p 109-110).

-Next day Morris “‘did not dare to show his face,’ but instead sent Cockerell, whom Quaritch found to be ‘a very sharp fellow’ ‘My friendship for Morris is at the end’ Quaritch lamented” (Peterson quoting 110)

-Q agreed to buy 63 copies at 25% discount, and 53 at 15% discount. When Morris added 100 copies, Q wanted to buy 50 at original 25% discount (Peterson p 110)

“The quarrel with Quaritch was, in short, patched over in the end.” (Peterson p 110)

6. WM Death / end of Press

Morris died 4 months after the Chaucer was finished
Story about reading Cuckow & Nightingale – delivered a few hours before he died, he was waiting to read it until the book was in print.

Upon his deathbed, Morris asked Cockerell to continue the Kelmscott Press. Cockerell “was in favor of its ceasing – as otherwise it would fizzle out by degree.” (Peterson, A Note, ix). It took a year and a half to finish all existing projects and to close the Press.

7. How to Interpret Kelmscott?

Book for book’s sake?
The beauty of the Kelmscott books is unquestioned; their “technical finesse and formal grace,” is undoubtedly “a monument to craft.”1 It is also widely agreed that Morris spurred the small and fine press movement, even now that Petersonhas shown there were other “revivalist currents in Victorian printing.”2 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
Influenced small/fine press

One possible reading is to focus solely on aesthetic merits; for an example of the book as apolitical art object with the “sole purpose of being beautiful,” see the Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition catalog4

Most critics, however, debate whether the Kelmscott represents a reactionary conservativism or a radically progressive vision. Does this collection reveal a disturbing “fetish,”5 function as the stale “19th century equivalent of oldies radio,”6 or document the “significant cultural act” of a “radical craftsman” at work?7 Is there a discrepancy between Morris’ Socialism and his Press or, as Elizabeth Carolyn Miller argues, “a concord between his aesthetics and his politics?”8

1 Douglas Dowd, “Meditations on the C-Word,” Contemporary Impressions 3 (Spring 1995): 7.

2 Peterson, Matrix, 154/

3 Susan Thompson, “Kelmscott Press: Golden Type’s Golden Touch?” Book Collector’s Market 2 (August 1976): 12.

4 Roth.

5 Dowd, 7.
6 Dowd, 8.
7 Dowd, 7.
8 Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, “William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism,” MODERNISM / modernity 15 (2008): 479.

8. Costs

[[[[On Chart:
s d –> shillings and sixpence
Gothic Architecture at exhibition and afterwards
Compare Chaucer to 2nd Glit Plain paper copy]]]]

-red ink
-union lists

Katz, Robin M. “William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Collection in Focus members program. Ingalls Library, Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, OH. April 2, 2009. Lecture.

Katz, Robin M. “William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Book Arts Cleveland event. Ingalls Library, Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, OH. April 1, 2009. Lecture.

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