The Kelmscott Press

1st July 2016

If you’ve ever read a history about William Morris- poet, socialist activist, writer and designer all of which he did with incredible dedication and proficiency, it will come as no surprise to also learn that between 1890-1896 he set up Kelmscott Press and mastered the skill of fine hand-printing. In total, the Press printed three books (which according to Helen Dore, an authority on William Morris, equalled 18, 234 volumes.)

kelmscott press

At this time, the craft of printing had dramatically declined and so Morris, being a lifelong lover of medieval manuscripts and books from the earliest points they were printed. The library at his home Kelmscott was filled, by his death, by over 1,000 of these early printed books that he had collected throughout his life. Therefore, the setting up of the Kelmscott Press seems a step that, like all his other endeavours, lies not far from his own interests and passions. “The aim of the Press was to revive the allied art crafts of type-designing, fine printing and book production, producing hand-printed limited editions on handmade paper. William Bowden and his son were employed as compositors.” (Helen Dore, William Morris, 1990)

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Morris aimed to revive the craft of printing which had become less popular due to commercial degradation. “As with the other decorative arts, he was not content just to design beautiful books, but went to considerable lengths to familiarise himself with all the materials and processes involved- the paper, ink, and the cutting and making of the type.” (Helen Dore, William Morris, 1990)

The knowledge he already had at this time of block printing as well as his talent at calligraphy ensured his success as a type designer- at Kelmscott Press he designed three type faces named, “Chaucer,” “Golden” and “Troy.” He was hugely inspired by 15th Century type when he designed all three fonts and studied them to see how they overcame the difficulties with using such delicate and intricate lettering.

Nature of Gothic

When looking at pages from books he printed, its amazing to see that he has made each page an individual work of art- he made over 600 designs for these borders, title pages and inscriptions throughout the final years of his life. As always, he made his work to impeccable standards- using pure linen rag instead of paper to model it on 15th century Bolognese paper. Every page printed by Joseph Batchelor for Kelmscott Press had a distinctive water mark which was designed by Morris of his initials with a primrose with a spring in its moth and an apple. “His authoritative Arts and Crafts essay on printing gives a survey of its early history and his own views on the principles of good typography, emphasising the importance of legibility; well laid-out pages (stressing that the double, not the single, page should always be considered the unity), with margins in due proportion to the type area. Although Morris excelled at decorative borders and initials, he also felt that books could be most beautiful in terms of typography alone, without any other ornament.” (Helen Dore, William Morris, 1990)

Below you can see the printing machine today as the William Morris Society re-create the process Morris used!

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Thank you to our wonderful friends at the William Morris Society for sending us the photos used in this blog!