Monday, August 14th, 2017...9:30 am

Interpreting History Through Art: The Kelmscott Chaucer, William Morris

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This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

The iconic Kelmscott Chaucer—this copy being one of only three printed on vellum and bound in full pigskin—is the crowning achievement of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ ventures into book production. As a practicing artist with a background in medieval studies, I’m fascinated by recreations of historical artistry. I held my breath when, in my first weeks on the job, one of the Kelmscott books found its way to my desk to be measured for a new box. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many Kelmscott books in Houghton’s collection: some on paper and some on vellum, some bound simply and others highly adorned, though none as breathtaking as The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

First page of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted (London, 1896)
Typ 805K.96.274, Gift of Henry Arthur Jones, 1906

William Morris was an English artist and designer, and a major figure in the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also an active socialist and an admirer of medieval art. He strove to bridge the divide between fine arts and crafts by creating beautiful, useful decorated objects. In 1891, he founded the Kelmscott Press, where he spent the last several years of his life producing illuminated-style printed books in high quality, limited editions.

In creating objects that look medieval, Morris made a statement on his own time period. His art is a reaction to industrial modes of production, which he decried as dehumanizing. Instead, he promoted an idealized vision of medieval craftsmanship. His love for the Middle Ages strikes me as curious, given the era’s reputation for ruthless hierarchy. On the other hand, these clashing interpretations remind me that no account of history can be objective or unbiased. All of us – historians included – bring our personal and cultural biases to the table when we interact with the past.

Morris’s business practices, though idealistic, are also mired in contradiction. He envisioned a socialist utopia in which everyone lived comfortably, and no one desired luxury. In his imagined future, beautiful objects such as the Kelmscott Chaucer would be owned by public institutions. In Morris’s reality, however, he depended on the wealthy to support his creative endeavors. Perhaps he wished that in the future, his works would find their way into public view, where they could be widely enjoyed. In this regard I fully agree with him; works of art have the greatest value when they can be used and admired by all.

Robin Harney, Library Assistant, contributed this post.

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