Emery Walker, William Morris & The Kelmscott Press

27th November 2017

Producing William Morris designs and being such incredibly big fans as we are of William Morris, it’s not surprising that we spend quite a bit of time reading about his life, work and friends. One person we wanted to learn more about was Sir Emery Walker​.

Born in 1851, Emery Walker was born in Paddington, London. From a contrasting background to Morris’ more affluent upbringing, Walker was born the son of a coach builder, growing up in a working class family, he was forced to leave school aged 13 so he could start earning and contributing to the family’s finances. Despite this, Walker believed wholeheartedly in self-education which we can see truly held high value for Walker as later in life his writings were read by audiences that far out did his own education and his intellect was appreciated by them. He also had associations with a few organisations we’ve written about multiple times on our blogs – the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Society of Antiquaries.

After his experience as an apprentice draper that he didn’t care for, in 1873, he joined the Typographic Etching Company based in Chiswick. The company produced blocks which were used in the printing process for illustrations and was done using photographic negatives. After learning his trade, in 1886, Walker set up his own company which became well known for their expertise in photogravure. Photogravure is an intaglio printmaking which uses a copper plate, coated with a light sensitive gelatine tissue – exposed to a film positive which is then etched. The results are a high quality print which reproduces the detail of a photograph. Walker used the technique to reproduce art, photographs and book illustrations – which infact helped revolutionise the book making industry.

 So where’s the link to Morris?

It was actually Walker that was a silent partner in the Kelmscott Press, he offered him a partnership with the company due to Walter’s expertise. May Morris spoke about the lecture Walker gave to the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 as a ‘eureka’ moment for Morris. Using the Jenson as a basic (a 15th Century Venetian printer called Nicolas Jenson who printed early books) he planned to draw on this and create his own typeface which would help him product ‘The Ideal Book.’ From here, the Kelmscott Press began two years later in 1890, by his own admission Morris wrote, “I was not much of a typographer before Mr Walker took me in hand.” It’s reported that Walter refused the offer to be a partner in the Press as, he wrote, “I had refused at the outset to be his partner, having some sense of proportion,” Morris said “I shall want to do everything my own way” so whether it was Walker’s self deprecating view of himself or if it was because he knew Morris would have been a hard person to work with if everything was his own way, we don’t know. Either way, Walter played an incredibly large part in the Kelmscott Press with the two talking most days and Morris often receiving advice from Walter.

As we’ve written before in our blogs specifically on the Kelmscott Press, that as with many parts of 19th century life, Morris was determined to not allow mass production and industrialisation to completely overtake quality craftsmanship. Though during this time, there was an increased level of literacy and so the demand for books increased in turn, however the high print runs that were demanding meant the reproduction standards were falling. Careless inking and poor paper meant the quality was low. Morris set out to change this.

Emery Walker’s home still stands overlooking the Thames at 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Morris’ neighbour and close friend, the house is a trove of Morris treasures so be sure to visit!