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Wiliam Morris Exhibit at the Central Library

The Kelscott Press's 1896 "The Works of Geoffrey Chauncer."

The Book Beautiful

An excellent exhibit on William Morris and the Kelmscott Press is currently at the downtown library.

The centerpiece is the library’s own copy of the Kelmscott The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, produced in 1896, often called the most beautiful book ever printed. That is, on a press. (The only possibly more beautiful books would have been hand-lettered and embellished by monks in the Middle Ages. The Kelmscott Press books, and particularly the Chaucer, were modeled on the monkish works.)

The huge Chaucer volume, in a display case, is open to the first lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. That supreme poetic proclamation of the flowering of new life in the new spring season—“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour”—is surrounded by orderly thickets of vines and grapes and grape leaves and tendrils.

But Morris’ ideas about bookmaking—and what really made his books so beautiful—went deeper than just decoration. Went to the heart of the matter, the printed word. The letter.

Morris referred to the Kelmscott project as his “little typographical adventure.” He wrote, “I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not…trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.”

The typeface he designed for a volume on the Trojan War and ultimately also used for the Chaucer volume was adapted from the typefaces of several of the finest medieval—15th century—German printers.

His intention, he said, was “to redeem the Gothic character from the charge of unreadableness which is commonly brought against it.”

Morris was a protean character. A writer, artist, architect, designer, seminal in the founding of the arts and crafts movement’s Romantic reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and a socialist.

The Chaucer volume was his last great project. He died a few months after the publication. Although he had been suffering from a host of ills, including diabetes, tuberculosis, and kidney failure, his doctor said the real cause of death was “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”

A number of other Kelmscott Press works are also in the exhibit, along with works of other presses inspired by the Kelmscott, including Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Press, of East Aurora. Hubbard’s genius was in picking real geniuses to rip off. Stickley for furniture. Morris for just about everything else.

On display is Hubbard’s first Roycroft Press volume, from 1896, with its phony antique English prose sonorities, The Song of Songs Which is Solomon’s.

Also on display is a 1925 volume from Aries Press, an enterprise of Buffalo writer and photographer Spencer Kellogg, Jr. Aries Press was originally located on Lincoln Parkway, but after a fire was relocated to the Kellogg family country home in Eden. The slightly fussy Aries font was created for Kellogg by Frederick W. Goudy, the pre-eminent type designer of the time.

By contrast with the medieval-based fonts, there’s the exceedingly clean and clear and crisp look of the Doves Press version of The English Bible, in a typeface based on 16th-century—and therefore Renaissance—typefaces.

The William Morris exhibit will be up through the end of January.

jack foran

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