William Morris Archive

The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris's Typographical Adventure, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, 58-60, 62, 64

Notwithstanding his intense (but  sporadic)  interest in printing, Morris was drawn even more strongly to the arts of calligraphy and illumination. When the first sheets of The Golden Legend (1892) came from the Kelmscott  Press in May 1891, he was moved to remark: 'Pleased as I am with my printing, when I saw my two men at work on the press yesterday with their sticky printers' ink, I couldn’t help lamenting the simplicity of the scribe and his desk, and his black ink and blue and red ink, and I almost felt ashamed of my press after all.'40 Morris often, to the surprise and amusement of his listeners, spoke disparagingly of printing, which he called a 'trifling' invention and of which he said he disapproved.41 Much as he might admire the illustrated books of the fifteenth-century printers, Morris knew that they represented medieval art in a state of decline; to discover the Gothic world in its wholeness and freshness, one had to return to the illuminated manuscript, preferably of the thirteenth century. Not surprisingly, Morris during the 187os, frustrated in his attempts to produce attractively printed books, resorted with increasing frequency to the writing and ornamenting of manuscripts.

[59] A long, relaxed letter to Charles Fairfax Murray, written in March 1874, conveys the sense of delight Morris found in this new activity: 'I wrote a book (on paper confound it) of about 250 p. p. translations of unpublished Icelandic stories with pretty letters to each chapter, which looked well on the whole. . . . Now I am at work at an Odes of Horace which will make about 100  pp of vellum octavo of the big sheets: the odes are short so there is nearly an ornamental letter to every page, which makes it a heavyish piece of work; however I have written about half & done 20 letters. To say the truth I have a mind to try and sell a book if I could find a customer: I work much neater now, & have got I think more style in the ornament, & have taken rather to the Italian work of about 1450 for a type. . . . I am very keen on the thing just now, & really enjoy my Sundays very much at it, and as you may imagine am very like to neglect my other work for it . . . . I am rather thinking by the way of trying a Cupid & Psyche for the market, painting in some of the master's pictures with it which he [Burne- Jones] has given me leave to do: for belike the oddity of a poet illuminating his own poem might make it saleable. . . .'42 (Morris did not systematically turn his work into a commercial enterprise; many of his manuscripts instead became delightful gifts to friends, particularly Georgiana Burne-Jones).

A casual glance at Morris's foray into writing and ornamenting manuscripts may suggest that he was merely following the Victorian fashion for 'illumination' that had first been stimulated by the publication of A. W. N. Pugin' s Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume (1844). In reality, Morris, with great independence of mind, charted his own course: the similarities between his manuscripts and the illuminated Biblical texts and uplifting proverbs done by middle­class Victorian ladies for display on the walls of their parlours are not very conspicuous. Morris of course was aware of the popular revival of interest in medieval illumination that swept across England in the 1860s. He owned, for example, a copy of The Art of Illuminating as Practised in Europe from the Earliest Times, Illustrated by Borders, Initial Letters, and Alphabets (1860),  with chromolithographs by W. R. Tymms and 'an Essay and Instructions' by M. D. Wyatt; and he was no doubt conscious of the other books on the subject flooding the market from writers  such as Henry Noel Humphreys (The Art of Illumination and Missal Painting, 1849; The Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages, 1844-49), Freeman  Gage Delamotte (A Book of Ornamental Alphabets, 1862; Medieval Alphabets and Initials for Illuminators, 1861; A [60] Primer of the Art of Illumination, 1860), and Henry Shaw (A Handbook of the Art of Illumination as Practised during the Middle Ages, 1866). (Morris also had in his library the 1870 edition  of Shaw's book.)  In 1861 there was even a London periodical entitled The Amateur Illuminator' s Magazine, and Journal of Miniature Painting.

Morris's three earliest surviving manuscripts, dating from 1856, are written in a weak Gothic script reminiscent of the style of the parlour illuminators, but in the third - a fragment of 'The Iron Man', a translation of Grimm's 'Der Eisenhans' - there is a fine historiated initial. Though these early efforts by Morris seem undistinguished in comparison with his later manuscripts, they made a strong impression on his contemporaries.  'In all illumination  and  work  of that  kind, he is quite unrivalled  by anything  modern that I know,'  Rossetti  wrote in December 1856; Ruskin declared at about the same time that Morris's 'gift for  illumination is I believe as great as any thirteenth century draughtsmans'.43 Nearly all of Morris's more successful manuscripts, however, were done in the period between 1869 and l875, and they display greater sophistication in both calligraphy and ornamentation. One explanation for this development, apart of course  from Morris's increased maturity as an artist, is that he had in the meantime acquired four of the most  important Renaissance writing manuals, all published in 1525 or 1526 and bound together in a single volume: La operina di Ludovico Vicentino, da imparare di scrivere lettera cancellarescha by Arrighi; Il modo de temperare le penne, also by Arrighi; Lo presente libro insegna by Giovantonio Tagliente; and Thesauro de scrittori, a compilation of pages from various manuals. The volume as a whole, Alfred Fairbank has observed, provides 'a remarkable collection of sixteenth-century writing and lettering manuals' and 'marks the be­ ginning of the italic handwriting reform now engaging world-wide attention'.44 There is in fact a direct line of descent from Morris to Edward Johnston, who initiated the modern calligraphic revival, for Johnston's career was effectively launched  when Sydney Cockerell in 1898 described to him Morris's rediscovery of the older hands and showed  him  Morris's  manuscripts.45

Fairbank lists eighteen manuscripts by Morris (not including trial pages, fragments, and a few more manuscripts that have turned up since he published his census). Naturally they vary in style and achieve­ ment, and it is difficult to examine all of them today because they are scattered about in many libraries. (The largest group is in the Bodleian.) Still, it is possible to offer a few broad generalizations about [62] Morris's manuscripts of 1869-75. All are in either a cursive which owes something to the writing manuals or a more formal Roman. This is surprising, given Morris's known predilection for Gothic hands and types; he appears never to have explained to others what reasons lay behind such an unexpected choice. It must also be said that Morris's writing, though accomplished for its period, may strike us today as slightly primitive. Early in our century Graily Hewitt, when shown by May Morris quills cut by her father, concluded that they were not well cut, and it is obvious that on some occasions he used crow quills, which do not provide a broad nib, rather than goose quills.46 The ornamentation, which was supplied by both Morris and others, is often delightful and fresh: Morris was a master of decoration, as the Kelmscott Press books were also to demonstrate. Yet, as in the Kelmscott volumes, one feels that at times the ornamentation is so out of control that it threatens to crush the text. Morris wrote on both paper and vellum; the latter was sent to him from Rome by Fairfax Murray, who posted him such a large supply that in 1891 there was still enough left to print six copies of The Story of the Glittering Plain, the first Kelmscott Press book. That Morris's skill as calligrapher grew rapidly during the 187os can be seen by looking more closely at two manuscripts from the beginning and end of the 1869-75 period. A Book of Verse (1870; in the Victoria and Albert Museum), an anthology of some of Morris's shorter poems (many of which were to be published in the Kelmscott Press Poems by the Way ( 1891) ) intended as a birthday gift for Georgiana Burne-Jones, is written in a decent  but unremarkable cursive; what lends a special charm to the manuscript are the clusters of graceful leaves and flowers by Morris that crawl up and down the margins and penetrate the blank lines of the text. Morris's colophon reflects the degree to which many of his manuscripts were collaborative productions: 'As to those who have had a hand in making this book, Edward Burne Jones painted the picture [of Morris] on Page 1: the other pictures were all painted by Charles F Murray, but the minstrel figures on the title-page, and the figures of Spring[,] Summer and Autumn on page 40, he did from my drawings. As to the pattern-work, George Wardle drew in all the ornament on the first ten pages, and I coloured it; he also did all the coloured letters both big and little; the rest of the ornament I did, together with all the writing.'

In 1874 Morris began translating the Aeneid, which led him in turn to  produce  an ornamented manuscript of the Latin text (1875;[64] formerly in the Doheny Memorial  Library, St John's Seminary, Camarillo, California).47 Like many of his manuscripts, the Aeneid was left unfinished by Morris, who was an exceptionally busy man and was also  notoriously impatient  when  confronted  with time-consuming tasks. But before he abandoned the Aeneid Morris had completed 177 vellum pages,  approximately  half the text, in a fine, broad Roman hand; he also painted some decorated initials that are as accomplished as any he did before the founding of the Kelmscott Press. Burne-Jones began  designing a group  of illustrations (now  in  the  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) which directly prefigure the Kelmscott Chaucer engravings. 'Every Sunday morning', he commented in a letter, 'you may think of Morris and me together  - he reads a book to me and I make drawings for a big Virgil he is writing - it is to be wonderful and put an end to printing. '48  Eventually Morris sold the manuscript to Fairfax Murray, who later persuaded Graily Hewitt to complete it.

It is difficult to assess how much Morris's experiments in calligraphy and  illumination  may  have  affected  his  subsequent  work  at  the Kelmscott Press. That the experience gave him valuable knowledge of Roman letterforms is undeniable,  and anyone who is familiar with Morris's handling of borders and initials in the Kelmscott books will occasionally experience a shock of recognition as he turns over the leaves of the manuscripts. The main lesson to be drawn from Morris's calligraphic achievements, however, is that, paradoxically, the Kelmscott Press (which has drawn such superlatives from bibliophiles and printing historians) was undertaken by Morris almost grudgingly. His heart always lay with the manuscript rather than the printed book. Among the proofs and trial pages from the Press that are treasured today in library special-collections  rooms, there are numerous little scraps of paper that betray Morris's secret hankering to abandon the printing press in favour of the pen: repeatedly he experimented with hand-coloured initials,  and  when  these ideas  come  to nothing, he printed a few copies of some of the Kelmscott books with blank spaces for initials (just as the earliest printers had done) to be supplied by other calligraphers.  Morris was not joking,  merely  exaggerating  slightly, when  he  suggested  that  printing  was  a  trivial  invention.  It was redeemed in his eyes only because it had - just barely - a medieval origin, and because, as he said, 'a book,  printed  or written,  has a tendency to be a beautiful object'.49


40. Mackail, ii. 270.
41. Ideal Book, p. 13; Burne-Jones, ed. Mary Lago, p. 109.
42. Collected Letters, 1, 219-20.
Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Willliam Allingham, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (NY, 1898), 191; a facsimile of Ruskin’s letter appears in the JWMS 2 (Spring, 1966), 2. The two most detailed analyses of Morris’s manuscripts, upon which I have drawn heavily, are Joseph R. Dunlap, “William Morris: Calligrapher,” in William Morris and the Art of the Book, pp. 48-70 (see also pp. 110-14 and Pls. XVI-LIVc) and Alfred Fairbank, “A note on the Manuscript Work of William Morris,’ in The Story of Kormak the Son of Ogmund, trans. William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (1970), 53-64. The latter includes Fairbank’s “An Annotated List of the Manuscript Work of William Morris,” pp. 63-9. See also Graily Hewitt, “The Illuminated Manuscripts of William Morris” in an untitled volume of three papers on Morris read to the Double Crown Club, 2 May 1934, pp. 1-12. Full facsimiles of two of Morris’s manuscripts have been published: A Book of Verse, with Introductions by Roy Strong and Joyce Irene Whalley (1981), and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Oxford, 1981).
44. Fairbank, p. 53. See also A. S. Osley, “The Kelmscott Manor Volume of Italian Writing Books,” Antiquities Journal 64, pt. 2 (1984), 351-60.
45. Priscilla Johnston, Edward Johnston (1959), 87.
46. Hewitt, pp. 6-7.
47. See Ulla Mickelsson, ‘Virgil’s Aeneid--the Culminating Achievement of William Morris’s Illumination Work,” Libri, 29 (October 1979), 260-70, and Anna Cox Brinton, A Pre-Raphaelite Aeneid of Virgil. . . An Essay in Honor of the William Morris Centenary (Los Angeles, 1934). Two pages of the Aeneid are reproduced in William Morris and the Art of the Book,  Pls. LIV and LIVe. The manuscript was sold at Christie’s New York, 19 May 1989, lot 2370.
48. Memorials, ii. 56.
49. Ideal Book, p. 67.