Today is International Kelmscott Press Day. Organised by the William Morris Society in the United States, the day marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of the Kelmscott edition of ‘The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’. The Kelmscott Chaucer, as it is commonly known, is regarded not only as the press’s finest achievement, but also as one of the most beautiful books ever published. As libraries, museums and other institutions join this international celebration, Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, takes a look at the Kelmscott Press publications in the John Rylands Research Institute and Library.
Public and private collecting
When William Morris’s Kelmscott Press issued its first book in 1891, Enriqueta Rylands was already amassing works for the library she was forming in memory of her husband. The purchases of the Spencer Collection (1892) and the Crawford Collection (1901) established the library’s association with antiquarian books and manuscripts.
However, Enriqueta was also interested in new limited or luxury editions. These encompassed both private press books, produced by pre-industrial methods, and lavish, colour-plate works which took advantage of the latest printing technology. This modern material was purchased initially by Enriqueta to be enjoyed at home, in her private library at Longford Hall, Stretford. Many items from her personal collection were gifted to The John Rylands Library at a later date.
Enriqueta Rylands and the Kelmscott Press
It had been thought that Enriqueta’s Kelmscott Press purchases were not transferred to the library until after her death in 1908. However, recent research by Elizabeth Gow has shown that the collection was transferred in January 1901, a year after the library opened to the public. The transfer included the entire output of the Kelmscott Press (53 publications in 66 volumes), plus related ephemera. Clues in this ephemera suggest that the bulk of the Kelmscott Press material was not acquired by subscription, and that Enriqueta waited until the collection was complete before gifting it to the library.
Today, the library is fortunate to possess both a paper and a vellum copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer. The accepted understanding was that the vellum copy was purchased by the library, while Enriqueta was content with a paper copy. However, Elizabeth’s research has identified a second vellum copy. This was sold at auction in 1910, as ‘the Property of a Lady Deceased’, along with a number of other ‘duplicates’ from Enriqueta’s private library.
Private press ephemera
The library holds collections of ephemera for major private presses including Ashendene, Doves and Essex House. For the Kelmscott Press this includes announcements, publication lists, order forms and trial pages. There are also examples of jobbing printing including stationery, invitations and certificates. Of particular local interest is this four-page brochure printed for the Ancoats Brotherhood. This Manchester socialist workers’ organisation, founded by Charles Rowley in 1878, promoted art among the working classes. William Morris was welcomed as a regular speaker at its lectures.
Printed in 250 copies, the brochure includes the woodcut designed by Edward Burne-Jones for the frontispiece of the Kelmscott Press’s ‘A Dream of John Ball ‘ (1892). The text includes two poems by Alfred Tennyson and prose by John Ruskin.
The Tregaskis Binding Collection
Unusually, the library holds more than seventy copies of one Kelmscott Press title. William Morris’s translation of the 13th-century romance, ‘The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane’, was chosen by the London booksellers, James and Mary Lee Tregaskis, for their 1894 International Bookbinding Exhibition. 76 copies in sheets were purchased and sent around the world to be bound by local craftsmen. The 73 copies returned included bindings from 27 different countries. These were exhibited in London, and transported to Windsor Castle for a private viewing by Queen Victoria.
Enriqueta kept the Tregaskis Binding Collection in her private library, but loaned it to the 1895 Manchester ‘Arts and Crafts Exhibition’ and to The John Rylands Library for its opening exhibition. The library also holds Enriqueta’s own copy of ‘King Florus’ in the original Kelmscott Press binding, and a further copy donated by David Lloyd Roberts. In 2005, a 76th copy of the title was obtained in an embroidered binding by William Morris’s daughter, May Morris. Intriguingly, the ‘duplicate’ sale of 1910 also included a copy of ‘King Florus’ bound by Morrell (lot 678), one of the London binders who contributed to the Tregaskis exhibition.
Our Private Press Collection today
As a wealthy book collector in the 1890s and 1900s, Enriqueta was well placed to establish a core collection of early English private press publications. More than a century later, the library’s Private Press Collection includes over 2,000 imprints from more than 300 presses in 11 different countries. Today, as we celebrate the life and achievements of William Morris, let us remember the female book collector, whose modern tastes brought the Kelmscott Press publications to Manchester.
Find out more
Our digitised copy of the paper edition of the Kelmscott Press’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
An overview of our Private Press Collection.
Steph Bushell’s blog The Private Press Collection at the John Rylands Library.
Steph Bushell’s blog The Private Press Collection: A Curator’s Perspective.
David W. Riley, ‘“A Definite Claim to Beauty”: Some Treasures from the Rylands Private Press Collection’, Bulletin of The John Rylands Library, 72.2 (Summer 1990), pp. 73-88.
Chetham’s Library’s blog on The Ancoats Brotherhood.