The remarkable Kelmscott Press

Earlier this year, on 8 March, an auction of rare books took place in Dorchester; a town pervaded by the spirit of Thomas Hardy and associated literary allusions. The great novelist was born nearby. Reports indicate that the book sale realised close to 1m. Among the items on offer was an edition of <i>The Canterbury Tales</i> by Geoffrey Chaucer printed at the Kelmscott Press in 1897, the price fetched was a world record of 74,000.

Located on the north embankment of the River Thames to the west of Hammersmith Bridge, the Kelmscott Press was founded in 1891 by William Morris, the celebrated poet, craftsman, and socialist. He started the venture scarcely seven years before death in 1898 on a site a little more than a stone’s throw from the modern offices of PrintWeek. Despite the truncated existence of the Kelmscott Press, the output was remarkable consisting of 53 books in 65 volumes with runs of 200 to 500 copies.

The use of the word remarkable can be justified because the production methods favoured were manual with handset metal types and printing on an Albion handpress. Exclusive typefaces were fashioned from punches that were handcut by Edward Prince. Editions were printed on handmade paper and vellum. Notable artists were commissioned to create illustrations and decorations for the books.

Overall, the volumes were expensive and much sought after by wealthy collectors and bibliophiles. Kelmscott, as a name, springs to mind when the description Art of the Book is invoked. Utilitarian is not a characteristic of Kelmscott works that tend to be luxurious and heavily embellished with ornamentation. They demand to be looked at and admired, rather than read.

Lawrence Wallis has held international pre-press marketing positions and is now a respected author and print historian.


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