Before and After: Restoration of Howard-Tilton’s Kelmscott Chaucer

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Restored

              The Kelmscott Chaucer, published in Hammersmith, London in 1896 by William Morris (1834-96), has been called one of the most splendid books ever printed.  Morris, the most famous artist-medievalist of Victorian England, devoted his life to recovering the beauty and usefulness of the Middle Ages.  His efforts were an antidote to the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on mass production and the replacement of human labor with machines.

                Medieval books were handmade.  They were thus both rare and expensive, and served not only as sources of information but also works of art.  With their exquisite scripts and illuminations, they still captivate and discipline the eye, turning reading into an aesthetic act.  Early printers of the fifteenth century, such as the Englishman William Caxton (1422-91), preserved the artfulness of medieval manuscripts during the age of print culture, echoing in their elegant typefaces and woodblock illustrations the look and feel of the handwritten books of the Middle Ages.

                Morris, in turn, imitated these early printers and Caxton especially, who first published Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1476.  The Kelmscott Press produced over fifty books, both on vellum—calfskin, the surface on which the best medieval manuscripts were written—and on linen paper.  Inks were handmade too, according to exact medieval recipes.  Kelmscott books were also decorated with lavish floral borders, red initials and captions (medieval-style ‘rubrics’) and, in the case of The Kelmscott Chaucer, with numerous pictures designed by Morris’s friend and collaborator, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones.

                The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted rolled off Kelmscott’s presses just four months before Morris died.  The book is the culmination of Morris’s vision of the Middle Ages, a volume that he described in a letter to a friend as ‘a pocket cathedral’.

                One would need a large pocket indeed to carry around this massive book, however.  Howard-Tilton patrons can see The Kelmscott Chaucer for themselves, in Rare Books on the library’s sixth floor.  It is the jewel in the crown of Tulane’s complete Kelmscott Press collection. Tulane’s Kelmscott Chaucer has just been lovingly restored by Howard-Tilton’s conservation librarian, Sabrena Johnson.  Before, during, and after images are available in this exhibit.  When Morris published the book, he had most copies of it bound in a simple binding of quarter linen with paper-covered boards, intending that those who purchased them would rebind theirs more durably and elegantly.  That’s what Tulane now has done, fulfilling William Morris’s plan for his book and making it available, in all its splendor, to a new generation of students, faculty, and admirers.

Curated By: Michael P. Kuczynski, Professor of English, Tulane University

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