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So, what have I been working on for the past 5 months? The commission of a lifetime! I was entrusted to rebind a copy of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press “Chaucer’s Works” (published in 1896) and what an absolute honour that was. 

The most ambitious and magnificent book of the Kelmscott Press, it was four years in the making and contains 87 wood-engraved illustrations designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones called the book “a pocket catherdral – it is so full of design”. 

The package containing it arrived from the USA on the 21st August, just 7 days after we had moved into our new home! Even the solander box my original copy arrived in, pictured here, is a lovely item. 

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The copy I rebound has a known history, as can be traced back in the book, “The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census” by William and Sylvia Petersen. The book jacket of the Petersen’s publication gives a concise explanation of the content of their book as follows:

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1896 by William Morris at his Kelmscott Press, was immediately recognized as one of the major typographical achievements of the modern world. Set in type and ornaments designed by Morris and sumptuously illustrated by Sir Edward Burne Jones, the Chaucer seemed to many readers (as W. B. Yeats memorably phrased it) “the most beautiful of all printed books.”

Collectors, librarians, book dealers, auction houses, and bibliophiles have always displayed a remarkably intense interest in this celebrated volume, and here at last in an exhaustive study of what happened to the most individual copies of the Chaucer after publication. This census traces the whereabouts of known surviving copies, describes the books and their bindings in considerable detail, and chronicles the fascinating history of ownership of each one.

The Petersons have located two thirds of the press run of the Kelmscott Chaucer, and in particular they reveal for the first time the complicated destinies of the fifteen copies printed on vellum.

The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census also provides a summary of unlocated copies, a list of copies of the Chaucer offered for sale since 1896, and an account of the bookbinders who have rebound it. Three substantial appendices record the copies sold by Bernard Quaritch (the London bookseller most associated with the publication of the Chaucer), the mailing list of the Kelmscott Press (published here for the first time), and other contemporary documents.

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The provenance of the copy I bound can been traced back in the book due to the identifying book plate in the front cover:

(page 146) 3.189 Terry-Cohn copy. QLB. – Rev. RODERICK TERRY (bookplate); SAUL COHN.

(page 164) 4.305 8 November 1934, American Art Association-Anderson Galleries (New York), lot 174. The library of Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry, Newport, R.I., part 2. QLB. Bookplate. “Original boards, top edge of covers very faintly discolored. In a dark crimson levant morocco solander case, suede-lined, by Bradstreet.” (Sold for $425)

(page 175) 4.502 18 October 1955, Parke-Bernet (New York), lot 594. The library of the late Saul Cohn, East Orange, New Jersey. QLB, “top covers slightly discolored…solander case.” R, Terry bookplate, (Sold for $500).

(page 191) 4.708 12 December 1995, Sotheby (New York) Lot 99. QLB. “Front inner hinge cracked, inscription in pencil on lower free endpaper…extremities darkened, spine somewhat worn, spine label chipped. Red morocco slipcase; defective.” Provenance: “Roderick Terry, with book plate; sold in his sale, AAA Anderson Galleries, 7 [8] November 1934, #174.” (Sold for $22,000)


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The census was published in 2011 so any further discoveries since then are not included but perhaps if the Petersens work on a second edition my binding will make its way into that copy!

This really was the commission of a lifetime, knowing how few copies of this book even exist, plus how few there are that are worthy or being rebound made it all the more special. 

I feel I was very lucky with the timing of this book commission coming to me. Being one of the distinguished winners of the 2017 Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition, the other winners and I were invited to Wormsley for the day in the summer of 2017 to visit the estate and the Getty Library. What an absolute treat this was and an absolute feast for the eyes, even the library building is magnificent, built to look like a castle.

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Within this wonderful building is the most magnificent and awe-inspiring collection of books, and luckily for me two copies of the Chaucer. This was perfect timing as I had yet to receive my copy so I was able to get a true feel for the size, scale and grandeur of the publication first hand in order to prepare myself!

I would like to thank Bryan Maggs for passing on the following information to me about the two copies housed in the Wormlsey Collection (information taken from the Wormsley Pierpont Morgan exhibition catalogue):

THE KELMSCOTT CHAUCER BOUND BY COBDEN-SANDERSON

Bound in 1900 by the Doves Bindery in white pigskin, the covers tooled in gilt with a border lettered with the opening words of the Canterbury Tales enclosing a design of gouge-work stems, convolvulus flowers, and heart-shaped leaves; spine with six bands and offset head caps, tooled in gilt; plain endleaves; rough gilt edges.

One of 425 copies printed on paper.

Purchased in sheets by Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and inscribed for him by William Morris, dated June 9th 1896, a month after printing was completed but still some weeks before publication. Morris died less than four months later. Bound by the Doves bindery to Cobden-Sanderson’s design for his own collection.

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And the second a very rare copy printed on vellum:

THE KELMSCOTT CHAUCER PRINTED ON VELLUM

Royal Folio. One of 13 copies issued on vellum, out of a total edition of 438 copies.

Bound in 1900 by the Doves Bindery in white pigskin over oak boards, tooled in blind; spine with six bands and offset head caps; vellum endleaves; rough gilt edges; pigskin and silver claps.

The binding was basically designed by William Morris, the front cover being based on his design for the title-page and the lower on a fifteenth century German binding in his collection, but the final arrangement was left to Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Bindery. The first copies in full pigskin, including two printed on vellum, were tooled by the apprentice, Douglas Cockerell, as it was felt that his imprecise touch better suited the antique look intended for the binding. This copy was bound after Cockerell left, however, and would thus be the work of Charles Macleish. Only three, possibly four, of the vellum copies and some fifty or so of the paper copies were bound in these full pigskin bindings.

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Before becoming a full-time bookbinder I worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for seven and a half years. I left in 2013 as my husband and I had the opportunity to move to the South of France so I decided to pursue my bookbinding as a full-time career. The same year I left the V&A saw the opening of, “The Clothworkers’ Centre” which is a state-of-the-art facility that offers visitors and researchers a unique opportunity to inspect and study one of the most important collections of textiles and fashion in the world.

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During my time at the museum I was really lucky to handle many hundreds of beautiful objects including various items by Morris and Co. I was really keen to see some more of Morris’s work in person, especially items that had been embroidered, knowing it would inspire me ahead of starting on my binding so booked a slot and went along to see six objects from a list I had chosen ahead of time. When I arrived the six objects had been laid out for me to study at my own pace.

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The most grand of all six objects was a large piece measuring 189cm (height) x 161cm (width), a wall hanging entitled, “The Owl” (T.369-1982). This was an incredibly detailed piece of embroidery, worked in silk on a background of silk damask designed by John Henry Dearle (circa. 1895) and embroidered by Mrs Battye (circa. 1898-1900). The piece was made by Morris & Co., England.

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I was very taken by the object’s namesake, “The Owl” with his sparkly yellow eyes!

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And also by the way the partridge’s feathers had been worked so beautifully in the silks.

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Numerous flowers adorned the rest of the fabric built up using a variety of different stitches and coloured threads.

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Secondly I looked at T.124-1985, an embroidered panel of a pomegranate tree on linen, designed by William Morris (circa. 1860) and measuring 160.5cm (height) x 69.8cm (width). I was intrigued to take a look at the reverse of this unfinished piece as it shows the path that the threads took to create the pattern on the front. When embroidering leather for covering bindings I am always aware that the back needs to be as neat as possible so when the covering leather is glued to the boards there are as few lumps and bumps as possible.  

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The third of the six objects I looked at, at the last I am featuring here, was the, “Flowerpot panel” (T.68-1939) which was embroidered by May Morris between 1890-1900. Embroidered in coloured silks on wool and worked in chain stitch, satin stitch, stem stitch and speckling – it was bequeathed to the V&A by May Morris.

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I was particularly taken by the fine chain stitches used to build up the picture.

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The final astounding piece of good fortune is the fact that from 7th October 2017 through to 28th January 2018 there was an exhibition dedicated to the work of May Morris on at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, entitled, “May Morris: Art and Life”. Part of the reason I was chosen to take on this commission was due to the use of embroidery throughout my work and the fact that this tied in really harmoniously with the work of May Morris.

“May Morris (1862-1938), younger daughter of William Morris, was a significant figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement and a pioneer of ‘art embroidery’. She ran the embroidery department of Morris & Co., as well as designing textiles, wallpapers and jewellery. May was also an influential teacher and lectured in the UK and America.”

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The whole exhibition was full of exquisite objects, too many to feature here, so I limit myself to three. I was especially interested to see how May Morris built up her designs from a line drawing into beautifully embroidered works of art.

1.“Orange Tree Panel”

Designed and embroidered by May Morris, possibly c. 1897

Silks on Linen. Worked in long and short stitch, stem stitch and French knots.

William Morris Society (T33) Bequeathed by Halena Stephenson, 1970


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2. “Autumn and Winter Panel”

Designed and probably embroidered by May Morris, 1895 – 1900

Coloured silks on silk damask. Worked in coloured silks and metal thread with laid and couched work, French knots, running, long and short stitches, back stitch, split stitch, satin stitch and stem stitch.

Private Collection

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2. “Autumn and Winter Panel” (detail)

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3. “Olive and Rose Fire Screen”

Designed by William Morris, c. 1880; probably retailed c.1900

Coloured silks on silk, mahogany frame. Worked in stem stitch, satin stitch and darning stitch.

Private Collection

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Of course I couldn’t leave without buying a copy of the exhibition catalogue! The publication presents the full range of May Morris’s work and reveals her exceptional skill and originality. I learnt a lot about May Morris in advance of binding my copy of the Chaucer and feel fortuitous that I was able to see so much of her work in person before starting out on this project of a lifetime.

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The next instalment of the blog will focus on how I used the above research to inspire a design for my binding of the Kelmscott Chaucer.

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