William Morris; The Kelmscott Press

16th October 2020

If you’ve read about William Morris, you’ll know he was hugely talented and passionate about a number of things. Did you know this included setting up the Kelmscott Press. From 1890-1896, he mastered the skill of fine hand printing. Our friends at the wonderful William Morris Society sent us these lovely photos to share with you.

A return to traditional craftsmanship

In 1888, Morris attended a lecture on printing by his neighbour, Emery Walker. Mass produced, badly made and unsightly, his vision was a return to traditional craftsmanship. The books, as shown in the photos, now remain a wonderful representation of the Art and Crafts aesthetic typical for Morris.

You can see the fine detail within the books – not just ordinary passages of text. Instead, intricate, beautiful Morris designs. In total, the Kelmscott Press printed three books. According to Helen Dore, an authority on Morris, this equalled 18,234 volumes.

With Morris, this new venture was very much how his love for architecture began – pushing back on the new ways of manufacturing. At the time of the Victorian industrial revolution, Morris wanted to keep and celebrate traditional craftsmanship. Morris was a lifelong lover of medieval manuscripts, with the craft of hand printing declining. By his death, he’d collected over 1000 books of their earliest print. These all lived in the library of his home, Kelmscott.

Reviving a traditional craft

Just like his other passion projects, the Kelmscott Press was created to perfection. “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)

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)

William Morris Type Fonts

Because he already knew about block printing from his time printing designs in Merton Abbey and also his talent at calligraphy. Therefore could design type fonts; “Chaucer,” “Golden” and “Troy.” Inspired by 15th Century type with all three fonts, he designed all three. Then, he continued to study them to understand the difficulties of using intricate lettering.

The Nature of Gothic and News from Nowhere

The images of Nature of Gothic and News from Nowhere show how detailed and beautiful the texts are. Definitely not just your average book. As you can see, each page is a work of art. He made over 600 designs for these borders, title pages and inscriptions in the last years of his life. His work, as always, was an impeccable example of artistry. Using pure linen rags instead of paper to model it on 15th Century Bolognese paper.

Each page printed for the Kelmscott Press (printed by Joseph Batchelor) had a watermark, designed by Morris. “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)

Thank you to the William Morris Society for sending us these photos! Referenced throughout was Helen Dore.

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