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Victorian printing and William Morris’s Kelmscott Press

Par Laura Mingam : Elève de l'ENS - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 09/05/2013

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During the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution reached the field of printing, and profoundly altered book production in England. Even though technical innovations led to the creation of dazzling volumes, the artist designer William Morris denounced the corruption of traditional printing methods. As a reaction against the standards of his time, William Morris decided to open his own printing press, with the aim of “producing [books] which would have a definite claim to beauty”. The Kelmscott Press was to become a new landmark in the history of English printing.

William Morris was a celebrated Victorian artist designer whose achievements in various crafts were legion. His career as a decorator started in 1861, with the creation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, a firm which manufactured a wide array of products, from wallpapers to stained-glass, furniture and tapestry. William Morris was first and foremost a designer, and his decorative items mostly featured characteristic patterns, composed of luxuriant natural elements and little animals. In the last decades of his life, Morris set about mastering yet another craft by creating his own printing press, the Kelmscott Press. His long-standing relation with books as a collector, a calligrapher and a typographer (Needham, 1976) naturally aroused in him the desire to design his own set of books. The exuberant personality of William Morris and his multifarious creations in decorative design have raised the enthusiasm of many. His first biographer, Henry Halliday Sparling who had been Secretary of the Press for a number of years, notably produced a rather biased account of Morris’s printing enterprise in The Kelmscott Press and William Morris, master-craftsman, in 1924. Nevertheless, later critics, who were less likely to have slanted points of view, continued to agree on the long-lasting influence the Kelmscott Press bore on the world of printing. It is worth wondering in what respect the Kelmscott Press differed from the printing practices which existed in England at the time. Why and how did Morris modify these practices, and how did these alterations succeed in pervading the printing landscape of the 20th century? I will adopt a chronological approach in order to put forward the evolution of printing in the 19th century, a period of deep changes and swarming activity, and to propose a genesis of the ideas that underpinned the creation of Morris’s Kelmscott press.

From chapbooks to annuals: a Golden Age of printing

Nineteenth century English printing: between national heritage and “technical revolution”

On the 30th of June 1877, the Caxton exhibition opened at the South Kensington Museum in London, commemorating the setting up of the first press in England, four centuries earlier. After introducing this major innovation in Westminster, in 1476, William Caxton printed for the first time The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, followed by more than a hundred other volumes. This constituted the starting point of the history of English printing, which later encompassed many a change and a discovery. For instance, the invention of Caslon Old Face by the typographer William Caslon proved a landmark in the field of typography. This type contributed to the prestige of English printed books in the 18th century. A few decades later, Thomas Bewick ushered in deep changes in the craft of wood engraving. His technique relied on the use of fine metal tools and the carving of the end grain of wood, where the surface is harder. As a result, the engraver could produce fine, detailed wood engravings, easily distinguishable from the traditional woodcuts, to be found in early printed books such as Caxton’s. These innovations of English origin demonstrate that the art of printing had not been unheeded in England before the 19th century. During the 1877 exhibition, Caxton was thus acknowledged as “the father of English printing” and celebrated as a national hero, while his antique looking wooden press, displayed in operation, fascinated the Victorian public.

Yet, if Caxton’s equipment appeared to be obsolete in the 1870s, it is worth remembering that at the beginning of the 19th century, the apparatus and techniques used by printers were so unchanged that, according to Percy Muir, Gutenberg himself would not have been at a loss how to use them (1989, 4). The radical changes that occurred in nineteenth-century English printing stemmed from what Geoffrey Wakeman called a “technical revolution” (1973). The industrial revolution, which thoroughly reshaped the faces of cities and countryside throughout England, had an impact on various crafts, including printing. Two major discoveries affected the press itself. As early as 1800, an iron press was perfected by Lord Stanhope and before long, replaced the antiquated wooden press. Secondly, the steam driven cylinder press invented by Friedrich Koenig superseded the hand press, first for newspaper, then for book printing. On the whole, the introduction of mechanization in the field of printing corresponded to a progressive disappearance of hand processes, and a growth in production.

A two-tier book production: three-deckers and gift books

Three-deckers, or “three-volume novels” are often regarded as symbols of nineteenth-century fiction and their method of publication was quite telling of the state of printing at the time. Indeed, the printing of books being still expensive, publishers were reluctant to print a whole book without ensuring that it would be a commercial success. The first volume was thus a sort of litmus test, and could possibly provide funds for the printing of the sequel. If the novel proved to be popular, the three parts were ultimately published as one volume. This final book, generally inexpensive and somewhat shoddy, presented all the characteristics of a commercially printed book after the mechanization of printing. In the same vein, chapbooks were cheap booklets sold by street vendors and containing pamphlets, tales or poetry.

However, it is worth underlining a certain paradox regarding the status of the Victorian book. First, books became less pricy, due to their new conditions of production, as well as more easily available to the readers thanks to such organizations as circulating libraries. Furthermore, while reading materials were more accessible, more people were able to read (Goldman, 1994, 44). Due to the convergence of these two factors, books turned into everyday objects and the private pleasure of reading generalized. On the other hand, the perception of books changed during that period as it was increasingly regarded as a mirror of social situation. In the Victorian society, possessing books was a manner of reasserting the notability, wealth and intellectual superiority of one’s family. Therefore, the technical revolution in printing led to a two-tier book production. In addition to the mediocre books mentioned above, modernized presses enabled printers to produce very dazzling, handsome volumes often fraught with decorative ornaments and illustrations. In the wake of the technical headway made in printing, a great variety of other experimentations were led. This inventiveness was particularly conspicuous during the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, when new processes for illustration and printing were displayed. The success of this event testified to the general support of the Victorian population for the technological progress of the period.

Colour printing constituted a seminal feature of Victorian book design. The advent of chromolithography was a turning point, insofar as it induced a simplification of colour printing. Many carefully designed books with ornamentations in colour were thus printed. Some of these illuminated volumes turned out to be great successes, like those of Owen Jones and Henry Noel Humphrey, or the Favourite Modern Ballads by Jospeh Cundall. They were generally issued around Christmas in order to be offered as presents, hence the name gift books, but they also constituted rewards for deserving students. Nevertheless, these books were not exclusively intended for young people. Adults equally coveted them, since they were symbols of social importance. The volumes usually lay on living room tables, as items of decoration, or adorned bookshelves. Because the books needed to be immediately identified as expensive gift books, specific attention was bestowed on the cover and spine.

Illustration and illustrators

These flamboyant items featured illustrations alongside other types of ornament. They were undoubtedly the major characteristic of this Golden Age. During the Victorian period, there was a high and unprecedented demand for illustrations on the part of the readers. Books for children unsurprisingly contained various illustrations, but the latter also adorned books intended for adults. The multiplication of these illustrations was made possible by technical innovations facilitating reproduction. New processes like lithography and electrotyping ensured the fast duplication of images. These illustrations gradually appeared in all types of literature, not only fiction but also more technical works, such as textbooks and instruction manuals. Concerning fiction, on which I will focus, classical works were endowed with news illustrations, sharing this privilege with new stories that had proved very popular. As a result, books were meant to be looked at, as well as read. In some instances, the images took precedence over the text. Some magazines created in the middle of the 19th century, like Good Words, Cornhill or Once a week were mere collections of illustrative art works. Similarly, the annuals, issued every year, reproduced existing engravings, or even paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy. These magazines of very decent quality seldom managed to thrive long, since the reproduction of images was still an expensive operation.

This craze for illustrations allowed many artists to produce praiseworthy images, which sometimes remained intrinsically connected to the text they illustrated, like the brilliant pictures Sir John Tenniel created for Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Many of these illustrators were also painters, but thought as highly of their illustrating activities as of the rest of their artistic career. Joseph Mallord William Turner, for instance, designed a vast number of steel engravings in addition to his well-known watercolours. It is noteworthy that in this context, the price of books varied with the fame of their illustrators. Pre-Raphaelite painters, for instance, were acclaimed illustrators of books of imaginative literature. Their contributions are generally referred to as “Sixties books”, since most of their designs were created during that decade. John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown or Arthur Hughes mostly created designs for black and white wood engravings, which were drawing from Thomas Bewick’s innovation. The afore-mentioned artists also shared stylistic traits, like the tendency to place a single character on the foreground, so as to enhance the dramatic dimension of the illustration. Holman Hunt, Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti worked with other illustrators on the famous edition of Tennyson’s Works by Edward Moxon (Illustration of The Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt). Edward Burne-Jones, who made a scarce contribution to the Sixties illustrations, deemed this ambitious project incoherent: “there were so many hands engaged on the pictures as to make it impossible as a book”. Yet, illustrators occasionally attempted to enhance the harmony between the illustration and the book as a whole. When he was in charge of illustrating Christina Rossetti’s poem The Goblin Market, Dante Gabriel Rossetti designed a whole title page in which to insert his illustration, in order to create a harmony between text and image in the collection (Title Page of The Goblin Market by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

Judging a book by its cover: the decline of Victorian printing

The debasement of Victorian book printing

William Morris was very prompt to disparage the state of Victorian printing, as he was generally distrustful of the innovations of modernity. Even though he never acknowledged it, nineteenth-century printers carried out some achievements which lived up to those of the preceding centuries. Nevertheless, it must be asserted that, alongside these pieces of fine printing, and especially after the Sixties, the standards of printing declined considerably.

Although books tended to be increasingly decorated and sophisticated, the basic materials constituting them, like paper and ink, were of poor quality. The necessity for printers to conform to commercial levels of production, and to maintain the lowest possible prices accounted for this trend. Once again, since covers were key features of Victorian books, most volumes remained externally decent. However, the inside betrayed the shoddiness of the materials employed. In paper mills, white rags, a traditional component of paper, were replaced by low quality substitutes such as wood pulp. Similarly, chemical substances and other products such as soap were added to ink in order to dilute it. Moreover, bindings were made in the cheapest and fastest manner, using gutta percha, a material derived from wax. Unlike earlier books, including early printed books from the 15th century, these books were not made to last and they deteriorated very rapidly. As Peterson underlined, the paradox of book production was that, “the older a book, the more likely it is to be in good condition today” (Peterson, 1991, 14).

The deterioration of books was also the other side of the coin of technical progress. The new steam driven presses allowed the work to be done more rapidly, which entailed that less care and attention were bestowed on details. It was not unusual to see pages printed askew, or the number of lines varying from one page to another. Typography was also greatly affected by these technical changes. As early as the 18th century, new founts of types known as modern typefaces had been designed respectively by Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot. These thin, elongated types became extremely fashionable in the 19th century, when the mechanization of traditional punch cutting made it very easy to produce them. In this period, typesetters were accustomed to leaving wide white spaces between letters and words, which, combined with the form of the letters and the poor quality of the ink, produced quite a greyish, unpleasant effect on the page.

Finally, book illustrations did not necessarily benefit from the disappearance of hand processes. Indeed, mechanization induced the severance of the essential link existing between the engraver and the design. The engraver was responsible for the translation of an artist’s design from one medium to another, and for the carving of the woodblock on which the design had been transferred. With the emergence of photography, this craft became obsolete, as it was possible to transfer directly the design on the woodblock, and to carve the latter through processes of facsimile engraving such as zincography, by immersing a zinc plate in a chemical bath. Due to these facsimile processes, images were duplicated and reproduced at leisure and almost randomly, thus losing their artistic link with a specific text.

The ethical dimension of printing

This debasement was noticed and acknowledged by a section of the Victorian society, and Morris’s ranting against the state of printing described above was largely echoed. It is worth wondering why these flaws in Victorian printing were worthy of such attention. In fact, this field was considered as a sort of barometer of the state of society as a whole. For many people involved in book making, the lowered quality of commercial books was symptomatic of the moral decay of the period. Such a correlation appeared in a commentary written by the art critic John Ruskin on The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, exhibited in 1854. In this Pre-Raphaelite painting, a young man is sitting at a piano, while his mistress undergoes a spiritual revelation which makes her rise from his lap and gaze through a window, into a sunlit garden. This painting is fraught with ominous symbols reminding the viewer of the dire situation of women who have failed morally, like the cat playing with a broken-winged bird at the bottom left corner. Among these symbolic details, Ruskin noted down the book with papier-mâché binding lying on the table, as yet another denunciation of the corruption of Victorian morals (Peterson, 1991, 32). The modern typeface, often charged with ugliness because of the contrast between thin and thick strokes in the letter, was also a matter of concern to experienced typographers who favoured Old face used from early printed books up to Caslon. This criticism was in dire opposition to the generally accepted idea that Victorian modern typeface was a more civilized version of older, “barbaric” typefaces, such as black-letter, a heavy, ornate type used from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.

In order to discuss these issues and provide new solutions, organizations were formed, providing experts and enthusiasts alike with the opportunity to converse and give talks. Morris himself was part of the Art Workers’ Guild from 1886 onwards. Not only did these groups discuss issues of printing and typography but they also tackled the state of many other crafts whose standards had lowered. The reaction against the depleted state of decorative arts was at the core of the Arts and Crafts movement, which developed in the second half of the 19th century. Figures involved in this movement blamed the impoverishment brought about by mechanization in the decorative arts, and sought to reintroduce traditional methods of craftsmanship from the Middle Ages. The reference to the medieval period was paramount to the Arts and Crafts movement. Indeed, at that time, the strict distinction between fine arts and the supposedly lesser decorative arts, which found its roots in the Renaissance, was inexistent. In addition, the Guild, a work organisation prevailing in the Middle Ages, was deemed highly ethical insofar as it preserved the special link between the craftsman and the object he produced. Morris was a fervent exponent of the medieval model of the guild and he asserted the “artistic morality” inherent to fine printing. Consequently, he regarded Victorian commercial books as immoral. This ethical dimension shows through in the attacks he penned on Victorian printing, and its “licentious spacing” and “gross and vulgar letters”. It should thus be pointed out that, if Morris was a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts movement, his indictment of Victorian mechanization was grounded in ideas that widely circulated in the late nineteenth-century society (Peterson, 1991, 38).

As a designer, Morris experienced all sorts of crafts, but printing was the last he tackled. However, he became aware of the issues of Victorian printing quite early in his life. It is worth remembering that Morris was also a prolific writer and needed to have his fictional works printed by commercial firms. For instance, in 1858, he was hardly satisfied when his collection of poems, The Defence of Guenevere, was printed with the sort of modern typeface he abhorred. A couple of years later, Morris had many of his own volumes printed at the Chiswick Press, the flagship of the antiquarian trend in printing, which developed in the second half of the 19th century. The owner of the press, Charles Whittingham the Younger, reintroduced Caslon’s Old Face, and cut a new type called Basel Roman, modelled on a sixteenth-century typeface. Its late medieval inspiration was in adequacy with Morris’ tastes, and he chose it for A Tale of the House of the Wolfings, and The Roots of the Mountains. Morris was particularly satisfied with the latter, and declared “I am any day to be seen huggling it up and am become a spectacle to Gods and men because of it” (Peterson, 1991, 71). Other attempts proved less satisfying, and even when the type was decent, Morris was especially irritated by the white spaces left by Victorian printers between words and letters, in margins, and between lines of text. After several attempts, Morris realized that he would be unable to obtain a book meeting his high expectations, until he could manage the entire production of the book, from design to printing.

The Kelmscott Press books: between medieval recreation and Victorian innovation

Establishing the press: a “typographical adventure”

During the second half of the 19th century, William Morris and his peers expressed their dissatisfaction with the degraded state of Victorian printing. The Arts and Crafts movement sought to compensate this dearth of technical skills by reverting to medieval methods of craftsmanship. Morris, for instance, extolled the merits of medieval manuscripts and early printed books, which he collected, regarding typography and typesetting. In fact, Morris shortly practised the art of calligraphy before creating the press, as it was then the only means for him to control all the steps of book designing. Therefore, even though the Roman letters he traced in manuscripts like A Book of Verse were very distinct from the more Gothic inspiration of his printed books, his experience in calligraphy must be acknowledged as a first step in book design.

Morris progressively formed the idea of creating his own press, under the influence of the numerous lectures and talks he participated in. At the 1888 Arts and Crafts Exhibition, Morris’s friend Emery Walker gave a talk on letterpress printing, during which he displayed photographic enlargements of fifteenth-century types via a system of photographic lanternslides. This original technique, which revealed all the details of the letter, raised Morris’s enthusiasm, This episode arguably triggered the establishment of the Kelmscott Press, and shortly later, Morris set about designing his own typeface, after studying enlargements of pages from early printed books, with the help of Emery Walker. Type designing, it should be pointed out, was at the very core of the project of the press, which Morris then designated as a “typographical adventure”.

His first creation, the Golden type, was a Roman type inspired by two different Venetian typefaces cast in the 15th century (Pages from the Golden Legend printed in Golden Type in 1892). Secondly, Morris worked on a Gothic type, thus giving full range to his admiration for large, thick, dark letters. With the Troy type, modelled after fifteenth-century types from Mainz, Ausburg and Nuremberg, Morris also evinced his enthusiasm for the medieval black-letter, which had been ousted by the Victorians (Page from The Well at the World's End printed in Troy Type in 1896). Finally, a smaller version of the Troy type, the Chaucer type, was created to fit double-column folios. Unlike other nineteenth-century antiquarian printers, like the Chiswick Press, Morris drew his inspiration from the earliest days of printing and resorted to genuine medieval sources, both Italian and Germanic. Subsequently, Morris carefully selected materials which would approximate those of early printers: a thick, solid handmade paper, and a dense, black ink which he had to go as far as Hanover to find.

As for typesetting, Morris established an array of simple rules, which he had developed throughout his previous experiences in printing. In his 1893 speech, The Ideal Book, he exposed the basic principles of the “architecture” of a well-printed book, such as the removal of leading (the blank spaces between lines), the reduction of white spaces between words and letters and the adjustment of the size of the margins. These rules were scrupulously respected at the Kelmscott Press, but as the press developed, decorated ornaments, hardly mentioned in this text, took on increasing importance. As Morris pointed out, he was a decorator by profession, and naturally designed a vast array of decorated initials, borders and frames, which became hallmarks of the press.

Illustrations, on the other hand, were the preserve of the artist Edward Burne-Jones. His brilliant woodcut illustrations mainly appeared on title pages, but also occasionally among the blocks of text. This successful partnership between Morris and Burne-Jones contributed to the fame of the enterprise, even though illustrations remained few and far between on the whole. Morris had both his decorations and Burne-Jones’s illustrations cut on wood with knives, thus conscientiously reverting to the ancient technique of woodcut and rejecting the more recent technique of wood engraving, widely used in the 19th century. Moreover, the wood engraver, whose role is to translate the artist’s pencil design into a woodblock was given a prominent role at the Kelmscott Press. Indeed, together with other members of the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris had noticed and bemoaned the disappearance of this function in the process of book production, due to the emergence of facsimile processes of reproduction. In the context of Morris’s reversion to the spirit and methods of medieval craftsmanship at the Kelmscott Press, the engraver W.H. Hooper was encouraged to take on a creative role, when translating the designs on the woodblock, even though Burne-Jones remained the foremost artist.

It is worth stressing that, despite Morris’s concern for authenticity, he condoned a small number of modern innovations in his press. Admittedly, the press in operation at Hammersmith was a traditional hand press, chosen because the slow pace of the work made for deftly printed books. On the other hand, Morris chose to embrace the iron press, a more advanced and efficient Victorian innovation. Finally, his friend Emery Walker, a process engraver, talked him into reproducing some decorative ornaments using electrotyping as opposed to traditional woodcut. These concessions notwithstanding, the medieval inspiration of the dark, large, heavy volumes issued by the Kelmscott Press remained blatant. This medieval redolence appeared most strikingly in a high watermark of Morris’s press: the “Kelmscott Chaucer”.

The Kelmscott edition of Chaucer’s Works: a medieval monument revisited

DOC 1: Title page of the Kelmscott Chaucer

DOC 1: Title page of the Kelmscott Chaucer

The types of books printed at the Kelmscott Press fell into three main categories, starting with Morris’s own literary works, in particular novels and romances, like The Well at the World’s End, or A Dream of John Ball. Other contemporary poets partook in the output of the press, such as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. However, the latter were outnumbered by medieval works. Morris’s root-and-branch admiration for the Middle Ages easily accounted for this choice. For instance, The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine was initially scheduled to be the first Kelmscott volume, hence the name Golden type given to Morris’s first typographical creation, but the project turned out to be too ambitious for the young press to cope with. Similarly, Morris was toying with the idea of printing an edition of Chaucer’s Works from the very beginning of his enterprise, but he was compelled to wait for the press to be more developed. The Chaucer, eventually released in 1896, was thus the last volume printed at the Kelmscott Press under Morris’s direct supervision. This book generally stands out from the global production of the press, and is regarded as Morris’s greatest achievement at the Kelmscott Press.
DOC 2: Page opening from The Romaunt of the Rose

DOC 2: Page opening from The Romaunt of the Rose

First, at this late stage in the development of the press, Morris was able to fully implement the principles of book design and book printing he had defended throughout his life, thus producing a real feat in printing. Secondly, contrary to the majority of the Kelmscott books, the Kelmscott Chaucer presents a wealth of illustrative woodcuts. As mentioned above, illustrations were not usually a key feature of Kelmscott books. The next most important contribution by Burne-Jones amounted to four illustrations disseminated in The Well at the World’s End, by William Morris. The handsome illustrations of the Chaucer were enhanced by a wealth of decorative ornaments designed by Morris for this specific volume. Combined with the images, these ornaments produced a very harmonious effect. Indeed, Morris paid specific attention to create a visual and artistic link between the decorative elements on the one hand, and the printed text on the other hand. Jospeph Skoblow insisted on the system of “boxes within boxes” constituting the decorated pages of the book, and which ensured an integration of text and images harking back to the Middle Ages (Richard Maxwell, 2002, 249) (DOC 1: Title page of the Kelmscott Chaucer). Many page openings testified to the echo existing between Burne-Jones’s illustrations and Morris’s borders, like in the poem The Romaunt of the Rose (DOC 2: Page opening from The Romaunt of the Rose). The Kelmscott Chaucer was thus a notable piece of fine printing, together with a cogent illustration of the revival of medieval printing launched by William Morris and his companions of the Arts and Crafts movement.

DOC 3: Illustration of The Romaunt of the Rose by Thomas Stothard

Nevertheless, Morris’s work, despite being of medieval inspiration, was produced in the Victorian period, and it is worth comparing his endeavour with genuinely medieval volumes of Chaucer’s text. It seems particularly relevant to focus on illustrated versions of the text, more specifically The Canterbury Tales, in the Ellesmere manuscript around 1410, and the second version of William Caxton’s printed edition, around 1483. Several differences can be pointed out between the treatment of this poem in the 15th century and the 19th century. An evolution of the place of the illustration on the page must be noted. In the Ellesmere manuscript, colourful painted miniatures appeared on the margins of the volume (Page from the Tale of the Wife of Bath in the Ellesmere manuscript). In Caxton’s version, the place of the illustrations changed, since his black and white woodcuts were directly inserted in the text. Nevertheless, these images remained mere vignettes (Page from the Knight's Tale in Caxton's illustrated version of the Canterbury Tales). The size of Burne-Jones’s illustrations stemmed from a change that occurred in the 18th century, when “the illustration became a full-page analog of the text, no longer a decorative miniature addendum” (Alice Miskimin, 1979, 41). Finally, while in both manuscript and early printed versions, the illustrations represented the various pilgrims and tellers of the stories, Burne-Jones chose to depict the contents of the pilgrims’ narrations. Up until the 18th century, the pilgrims had been the sole subjects of the illustrations. These figures disappeared very progressively to give way to depictions of the tales themselves, in books such as John Bell’s 1782 edition of the Works illustrated by Thomas Stothard (DOC 3: Illustration of The Romaunt of the Rose by Thomas Stothard). However, in Burne-Jones’s designs, the pilgrims were consistently absent to lay utter emphasis on the narrative dimension. According to Velma Bourgeois-Richmond this choice was symptomatic of the Victorians’ passion for storytelling (Bourgeois-Richmond, 2005, 13). Therefore, the illustrations of this medieval text, although deeply inspired by medieval models in terms of printing and illustrative techniques, remained quite strongly influenced by the Victorian time in which the press was set.

In fact, the choice of Chaucer’s text was in itself ambiguous. On the one hand, this choice seemed to simply follow Morris’s fascination for the Middle Ages. On the other hand, it must be asserted that the Works of Chaucer were a source of inspiration in a wide range of artistic fields in the 19th century, including in painting and other decorative arts. Just as the Arthurian Legends, the poems of Chaucer became symbols for the movement of medievalism, which emerged in the Victorian period. The Victorians’ strong interest for the period could be seen at all levels, from the official painting of Queen Victoria and prince Albert clad in medieval attires by Edwin Landseer, to the neo Gothic building of the Houses of Parliament erected in 1825, and designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. The Pre-Raphaelite painters, who distinguished themselves in producing Victorian book illustrations, also realized oil paintings on subjects of medieval inspiration. One of the major characteristics of Victorian medievalism was the insistence on story at the expense of history (Michael Alexander, 2007, 160). In other words, Victorian artists did not so much take into account the historical accurateness of events as the general atmosphere conveyed by medieval subjects. William Morris, on the other hand, was very sensitive to historical accurateness and the use of genuine medieval sources, as it appeared in his work in type designing. For that reason, his work in printing was not completely in keeping with Victorian medievalism.

As far as the Kelmscott Press was concerned, one cannot deny that William Morris produced an unprecedented work. His reintroduction of medieval techniques and medieval style in printing and book design was a genuine innovation in the 19th century. Nevertheless, although Morris profusely lambasted the Victorian society, the productions of the Kelmscott Press were not altogether in opposition to the widespread taste for the Middle Ages. In fact, Morris had no troubles finding buyers for the Kelmscott Chaucer and the volume turned out to be a commercial success.

The Kelmscott Press: a watershed in Victorian printing?

The consideration of the Kelmscott Chaucer revealed William Morris’s ambiguous position in the world of printing at the end of the 19th century. It is thus worth wondering to what extent his experimentations with printing, which did not span over more than a decade, wielded an influence over book printing in England and elsewhere.

One must bear in mind that, in improving the state of Victorian printing, Morris really sought to change individual lives: “to enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end toward which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle” (Peterson, 1991, 4). In Morris’s mind, there was more to interior decoration and book printing than mere objects, and these items were liable to bring about moral improvement in people’s lives. This ethical dimension accounted for the virulence of his discourse on Victorian printing.

However, on taking a closer look at the productions of the Kelmscott Press, one realizes that, contrary to what might have been expected given Morris’s idealistic ethical ideas, the Kelmscott books remained principally aimed at the wealthy. Even more accurately, these costly items chiefly appealed to bibliophiles. Indeed, as Morris stated, they were above all “work[s] of art” (Peterson, 1991, 238). Moreover, despite Morris’s assertions, the abundance of decorative elements in these books made them quite outlandish and difficult to read to inexperienced readers. In fact, as Duncan Robinson pointed out, the decorative profusion characterizing the Kelmscott Press was eventually regarded as a paradigm of the Victorian decorative arts. This was quite paradoxical given that at the moment when the press was created, the visual effect of the Kelmscott books greatly differed from what was available on the market.

Even though Morris’s books were first and foremost addressed to a narrow circle of readers, his influence on subsequent printing was twofold. First, his artistic books were a model and a source of inspiration for many private presses. The latter were presses privately owned as a pastime, and whose printer produced books of fine printing not intended for sale. This infatuation for printing in the 19th century was known as the private press movement. Many of these enterprises started while the Kelmscott Press was still active, but the latter’s influence lasted beyond its closure. For instance, the Ashendene Press was created by Henry St John Hornby in 1896, after he visited Hammersmith, where the Kelmscott Press was set. In 1900, two years after Morris’s death, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker, whom Morris frequented in Arts and Crafts gatherings, opened the Doves Press whose books scrupulously respected the rules listed by Morris. In these cases, the inspiration of the Kelmscott Press was more noticeable in type setting than in decoration and illustration. It must be asserted that in the last decades of the 19th century, the heyday of medievalism had passed and this style gradually began to fall out of fashion, to finally disappear at the close of the First World War. For that reason, the dense, heavy ornamentations of Kelmscott books, whose medieval, if not medievalist inspiration was conspicuous, appealed less to readers. Similarly, the medievalist paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites disappeared quite radically from the interest of art critics after the War.

Nevertheless, under the impulse of private presses, which had heeded the typographical rules without copying the decorative patterns, simple principles of book design filtered down to commercial printing. If the style of the Kelmscott Press no longer appeared as such in later book productions (with the exception of Charles Robert Ashbee’s Essex House Press which took over the Kelmscott Press without much success), the basic rules concerning type-spacing, margins, headlines and leading reappeared in all kinds of books all over Europe and America. Morris’s typefaces were not reused as such, and appear rather dark and strangely shaped to the modern eye. But his typographical adventure still had the merit of challenging the undisputed predominance of Victorian methods of printing and typefaces. Just as the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, the merits of the Kelmscott Press books were reasserted a few decades after the end of the war, when the distrust of Victorianism had begun to fade away, and they appear nowadays as paragons of fine printing.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Laura Mingam, "Victorian printing and William Morris’s Kelmscott Press", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2013. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/peinture/victorian-printing-and-william-morris-s-kelmscott-press