The Magnificent Kelmscott Chaucer, One of Approximately Fifty Copies Bound by The Doves Bindery in Full White Pigskin[Kelmscott Press]. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now newly imprinted. [Hammersmith: Printed by me William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, 1896].
One of 425 copies printed on "Perch" handmade paper, out of a total edition of 438 copies. Large folio (16.6875 x 11.375 inches; 424 x 289 mm.). [4, blank except for signature], ii, , 554, [2, blank] pages. With eighty-seven large woodcut illustrations after Sir Edward Burne-Jones, redrawn by Robert Catterson-Smith and cut by W. H. Hooper. Woodcut title-page, fourteen variously repeated full-page woodcut borders, eighteen variously repeated woodcut frames around the illustrations, twenty-six nineteen-line woodcut initial words, numerous three-, six-, and ten-line woodcut initial letters, and woodcut printer's device, all designed by William Morris and cut by C. E. Keates, W. H. Hooper, and W. Spielmeyer. Printed in black and red in Chaucer type, with the titles of the longer poems printed in Troy type. Text in double columns. Edited by F. S. Ellis.
One of approximately fifty copies in the publisher's original full white pigskin over oak boards by the Doves Bindery, elaborately tooled in blind after a design by William Morris. The front cover lettered in blind with gothic letters "Geoffrey Chaucer" near the top and "Kelmscott" near the bottom, with a series of borders, including a large stylized grapevine (Tidcombe 4e and 4g), framing a central panel divided into lozenges containing, on this copy, alternating rows (2, 3, 2, 3, 2) of pomegranate and rose tools (Tidcombe 2d and 2a), with double plain leaves (Tidcombe 2g) at the top, triple rose leaves (Tidcombe 2f) at the bottom, and pairs of rose leaves on a stem (Tidcombe 2e) at the sides, and with various dots, gouges, and creasers; the back cover with large lozenges containing stylized oak leaves with large rosettes (Tidcombe 1a) at the centers, divided by wide floral-tooled straps; the spine in five compartments with six raised bands, tooled with fleurs-de-lis and pairs of branches (Tidcombe 3a-g); two silver clasps and catches, each clasp attached to the back cover with six symmetrically arranged nails, all edges gilt on the rough. Signed in smoke in Troy type at the foot of the rear pastedown: "THE DOVES BINDERY 1897" (later copies were signed in gilt on the rear turn-in). Minimal rubbing to the edges of the raised bands on the spine and some faint discoloration to the pigskin covers, as usual. A few short very neatly repaired marginal tears: half-inch tear to the upper corner of blank leaf a1, half-inch tear to the lower blank margin of h7 (pages 109/110), tiny tear to the outer blank margin of k7 (pages 141/142), half-inch tear to the upper blank margin of aa5 (pages 361/362). Slight natural crinkling of the paper in the margins of some leaves, once or twice just affecting the printing of the woodcut borders, most noticeable on page 37. Some very occasional mostly marginal light foxing, heaviest on leaves r3 (pages 245/246) and r6 (pages 251/252). Occasional very faint offsetting from the full-page woodcut borders. Two small very faint red smudges in the lower margin of page 487. A near fine copy of this masterpiece of the Kelmscott Press. From the Kelmscott Press collection of E. H. Van Ingen of New York. With a neat pencil note on the front pastedown: "1928 dosg. / bought at Sotheby's 13 Feb 1928 / Sale of Van Ingen's books." With an additional pencil note about the binding on the front free endpaper. Housed in a gray cloth clamshell case with a vellum spine ruled and lettered in gilt.
In a printed announcement (Peterson C40) regarding the special bindings of the "Kelmscott Press Edition of Chaucer's Works," issued on 26 February 1896, Morris indicated his intention to provide four special bindings for the Chaucer: two full white pigskin and two half white pigskin designs, one of each style to be executed by the Doves Bindery and by J. & J. Leighton, who had produced most of the vellum bindings for the other Kelmscott Press books. Because of his illness Morris was only able to complete the present full pigskin design, modeled after a combination of South German fifteenth-century bindings. "Many of the tools were copied directly from bindings in Morris's library" (Tidcombe, page 47). The lower cover, whose final design was probably completed by Cobden-Sanderson, is known to be modeled after a fifteenth-century binding in Morris's own library, a 1478 Koberger Bible bound by the Salzburg binder Ulrich Schreier.
In his bibliography of the Kelmscott Press ("An Annotated List of the Books Printed at the Kelmscott Press," in William Morris, A Note on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press (Hammersmith: 1898), reprinted in H. Halliday Sparling, The Kelmscott Press and William Morris Master-Craftsman (London: 1924), pages 135-174)), Sydney Cockerell stated that the binding to Morris's design had been "carried out, at the Doves Bindery, on forty-eight copies, including two on vellum." "This presumably is the number of bindings commissioned when the books were ordered. However, more than a few copies were bound after Douglas Cockerell left the Bindery [i.e., after November 1897]. Some copies dated 1897 appear to have been tooled by [Charles] McLeish, and a number have later dates, including two copies on vellum bound in 1899 and 1900" (Tidcombe, page 51). These were evidently not included in Cockerell's count. There is apparently no record of the total number of copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer bound by the Doves Bindery to Morris's design, but Cobden-Sanderson continued to accept commissions for it even after the Bindery was closed to outside orders in 1909, the last copy being bound in about 1919, after which Cobden-Sanderson "returned the tools to Miss Morris as an heirloom" (Cobden-Sanderson in a letter to George Millard, dated 26 April 1919, quoted in Tidcombe, page 53).
The tooling of the central panel on the front cover varies among different copies. The present copy, for example, is one of only a few copies to be decorated with alternating pomegranate and rose tools; the majority of copies have alternating rose and fleur-de-lis tools.
The Kelmscott Chaucer is "the most famous book of the modern private press movement, and [especially when bound after Morris's own design] the culmination of William Morris's endeavor" (The Artist and the Book).
"This great edition of Chaucer is certainly the crowning achievement of the Kelmscott Press" (from a "discriminating and enthusiastic review" in the Athenaeum, 3 October 1896, pages 444-445, quoted on page 111 of Peterson).
"In his productions, Morris endeavored to retrieve the spirit of craftsmanship which had characterized printing in its first decades. He redesigned two of the outstanding type faces of that period; all of his books were printed on the hand press; his paper was manufactured according to fifteenth-century standards; and he returned to to the woodcut for his illustrations. In margins and general format his books follow what he considered the best traditions of early printing" (Huntington Library, Great Books in Great Editions).
The Artist & the Book 45. Clark Library, Kelmscott and Doves, pages 46-48. Huntington Library, Great Books in Great Editions, 24. Needham, William Morris and the Art of the Book, 101A. Peterson A40. Ransom, Private Presses, page 329, no. 40. Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England, 258 ("one of the great books of the world"). Sparling 40. Tidcombe, The Doves Bindery, 408 and pages 46-61. Tomkinson, page 117, no. 40. Walsdorf 40.
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