William Morris Archive

William Morris : A Book of Verse, 1870 by Joyce Irene Whalley, Assistant Keeper of the Library, Victoria and Albert Museum

A Book of Verse by William Morris appeared in a sale at Sotheby's, London, on 22 December 1952, as Lot 99. The description of this sale stated that it con­tained 'valuable printed books, autograph letters and historical documents etc.', and that the contents were partly selected from the library of Mrs J. W. Mackail, including 'material inherited from her parents, the late Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Bart., and Lady Burne-Jones'. The manuscript had thus re­mained in the family until it was purchased at the sale by the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the help of the Friends of the National Libraries. Mrs Mackail was Margaret Burne-Jones before her marriage, and her husband was the biographer of William Morris; his work is still the standard account of that remarkable man, his activities and his circle. The manuscript thus acquired by the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum was produced by William Morris for the birthday of Lady Burne-Jones ( then Mrs Burne-Jones) in August 1870.

It was written on paper, ornamented with painted designs, and bound in vellum by Riviere with a design of gold fleurons on both covers. It was not surprising that among his many other interests William Morris should have found time to produce so demanding a work as this manuscript book. Since his youth he had been fascinated by medieval illuminated manu­scripts, and during his undergraduate days he had ,studied the manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. He was very conscious of the many skills which had gone to the making of the finished manuscript - or indeed of any early book- and in time he tried his hand at all of them. It was undoubtedly this study of early manuscripts which subsequently influenced his printed books. But it was not easy for anyone, however enthusiastic, to recreate the art of the medieval scribe and illuminator in the second half of the nineteenth century, since the basic skills had been largely forgotten. Moreover, there had been con­siderable changes in writing equipment which made it almost impossible, at the time when Morris made his first attempts, to reproduce the exact effects of the medieval scribe. The paper (where this was used in preference to vellum) had a different texture, the composition of the inks had changed, and, above all, by the 186os the steel pen had largely replaced the traditional quill. But there did exist a very real interest in the production of 'medieval' illuminated books, and in this Morns was typical of his generation. With the advent of a commercially viable method of colour printing, there issued during the 1860s and 1870s a stream of manuals on the art of illuminating, mainly aimed at the amateur.

Morris, however, was not one of the amateur band, in this or in any other of his projects. He did his best to imitate exactly the workings of the medieval art­ists and craftsmen whom he so greatly admired. According to his daughter, May Morris, he made detailed studies of manuscripts in the British Museum, making voluminous notes and sketches in his pocket books. Morris's usual handwriting was bold and sprawling and he needed to evolve a completely dif­ferent script for his manuscript work. Inevitably he was most influenced in the first instance by gothic letters, but by about 1870 (the date of A Book of Verse), he had formulated a very characteristic hand which owed something to the copy books of sixteenth-century Italy, and this script he used henceforward in all his manuscript works.

When it came to illuminating and decorating a book, Morris was on much surer ground. Not only could he use his own eyes to study medieval manu­scripts, but there also survived medieval texts on illuminating which he could read and implement. May Morris recalls his work table: 'there was precious ultramarine in a slim cake, there was pale gold in shells, and gold leaf in books ... We were shown how the gold was laid .... Then there was the beautifully white vellum .... and quill pens .... ' It was about 1870 when Morris took up illuminating seriously, and the birthday gift of A Book of Verse for Georgiana Burne-Jones was his first important venture. This manuscript, although deriv­ing its inspiration from medieval sources, was not so much an illuminated work as a painted one, although titles and headings were in gold. The book is a decor­ated book - decorated with leaves and flowers that twine up the margins and interlace themselves into the text of the poems: 'a tangle of swift delicate pen­work in brown with leafage and flowers lightly painted in thin colour' is how May Morris describes this work, so redolent of early summer. Indeed the ex­treme delicacy of the paint-and-pen-work in this manuscript can never have been more fully appreciated than when the production of the facsimile was under consideration. As the twentieth-century craftsmen peered at the work under a magnifying glass, they despaired of ever matching up to the fine quality and detail of the original. The beauty of the colouring, with all its subtlety, and the intricacies of hairlines and dots which decorate the foliage, have proved as much a test of book making as anyth-ing Morris could have experienced in his own printing experiments.

Morris had not intended to do all the book work himself, allocating various parts of it to his friends and fellow-workers, as had been done among medieval craftsmen. The manuscript contains a portrait of Morris himself on the title­page, painted by Charles Fairfax Murray from the photograph profile of 1870, and it was Fairfax Murray who did all the rest of the pictures, with the exception of the one on page 1, which was by Burne-Jones. As for the pattern work, George Wardle drew all the ornament on the first ten pages, and Morris colour­ed it; Wardle also did all the coloured letters, but Morris himself executed the rest of the ornament 'together with all the writing'. It is perhaps fortunate for us that Morris added all this information in the colophon to the manuscript, since stylistically all the artists were very much akin, though a detailed study of the various parts can reveal the individual hands.

Of the texts of the manuscript, Morris wrote 'Also I made all the verses', but, he adds hastily, 'two poems .... I translated out of Icelandic' - as if he felt that he should disclaim the originality of these verses which in fact he has made very much his own. A number of poems in A Book of Verse were subsequently pub­lished in Poems by the Way. This work was first issued by the Kelmscott Press in 1891, but some of the poems had already appeared in various journals. How­ever, the versions which Morris chose to write out for Georgiana Burne-Jones were not always those which appeared in print, and it can be an interesting exer­cise for the reader to discover the variations in the manuscript and printed texts, and to analyse the reasons for the changes. Titles too could vary. The poem called 'Missing' in the manuscript had been 'The Dark ·wood' on its first appearance in The Fortnightly for February 1871, but was re-titled 'Error and Loss' in Poems by the Way. A Book of Verse by William Morris therefore displays all the varied abilities of this versatile artist-craftsman - as he would have wished to be designated ('genius' is a word some people might prefer). For here is to be found the poet, many of whose works are still well-known today; the calligrapher, who through his secretary Sydney Cockerell was to influence the early course of the revival of that art in the next century; and lastly the maker of fine books, who by his whole attitude to the art of the book, has had a profound and lasting influence on twentieth-century book design. 


The Collected Works of William Morris. With introductions by his daughter May Morris. Vol. IX: Love is Enough; Poems by the Way; 1911.

The Life of William Morris, by J. W. Mackail. World's Classics edition, '1950.

'William Morris, calligrapher', by Joseph Dunlap. In William Morris and the Art of the Book, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1976.