Rare Book Highlights: new purchase by William Morris

Page on left hows a black and white print of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve is seated on a fallen log with a fur wrapped around her lower abdomen and long hair somewhat covering her naked breasts. At her feat are two young children, one with its arms wrapped around her leg. Adam is standing, bending over to push a spade into the ground. Printed text at the bottom reads, "When Adam Delved and Eve Span Who was then the Gentleman. There is an intricate black and white printed border around the image on the left page and the text on the right page. Both borders have design sof leaves, and the righth one includes bunches of grapes.

Frontispiece and first page of William Morris’s “A Dream of John Ball; and, A King’s Lesson.”

Just look at that frontispiece! Is that classic William Morris, or what? The book featured here is among our newest additions to the rare books collection.

William Morris was a Victorian British designer, craftsman, and author, known for his wallpaper and textile design and associated with the Arts & Crafts Movement. You may be familiar with his famous quote:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

In rare book circles, he is known as the founder of the Kelmscott Press and the designer of the famous Kelmscott Chaucer.

William Morris believed in the importance of manual labor and skilled craftsmanship. In the wake of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution, he made sure that his own decorative arts company performed impeccable handwork in crafts that he first made sure to master himself. In 1891 at the age of 56, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press to produce books that were a pleasure to look at and to read. Following his principles of skilled craftsmanship and handiwork, he learned the skills of hand printing, type design, and paper making. Taking inspiration from the type of the famed 15th century type designer Nicholas Jensen, who created one of the earliest Roman typefaces, he designed three typefaces for use by the press–Golden, Troy, and Chaucer–that were clear, readable, and beautiful. He also designed ornamental letters and borders. You can see that the ornamental borders in the image above look very similar to Morris’ wallpaper and textile designs (see examples here).

The book we purchased is William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball; and A King’s Lesson (1892). It includes two of Morris’s own writings. The illustration for the frontispiece was designed by Morris’ friend, longtime business partner, and Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. See more pictures of this book below:

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The founding of the Kelmscott Press marks the begininng of the private press movement that flourished around the turn of the 20th century, in which private individuals set up presses that were focused on producing high-quality handmade books emphasizing the book as a work of art and generally without a strong profit motive. Other famous private presses include the Doves Press and the Ashendene Press.

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