The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott

I chose to examine the book, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which was published by The World Publishing Company in New York. It is a facsimile, or exact copy, of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer with all 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones. I went over to this book initially because the cover of it was a cream color with a pattern pressed into the front. It was hard to see the pattern since everything was the same color, so I went up to it to look at the cover harder. I literally judged a book by its cover and chose to write about it in this assignment.

       The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was a rather large book compared to what I’m used to. It was at least 12 inches tall and at least 2 inches thick. The book itself was cumbersome to manage. The binding felt essentially brand new because the pages did not just stay open, I had to hold them in place to look at them. When I first opened the book, it did not have a distinct new book smell, but I could smell the paper. The pages did not have a certain texture to them other than smoothness. The cover was exciting to touch because the pattern pressed into the front created a relief, and the best way to experience the pattern on the front was feeling it since it was all the same color. Interacting with this book was a new experience for me because I do not think I’ve ever examined a book this large.

The most interesting part of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was the inside. The front of the book appears bleak since its all the same cream color, but the inside is filled with highly detailed illustrations and initials. The pages with illustrations include bold patterns, images from the Canterbury Tales, and some pages even combine text inside of the images and patterns. What truly makes the patterns and images on these pages pop out is the contrast created through the use of negative space. The pages only utilize black ink and negative spaces. The saturated black ink provides high contrast to the negative areas on the page. Every turn of the page had a wow-factor mainly due to the contrast, but also just the sheer sizes of the illustrations taking up most of the page.

This book is a facsimile of a book that was originally printed in William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. The book contains stories found in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer as well as descriptions of each character. I feel as though this book is valued for these reasons. I also feel that these reasons are also why the book is in this collection. It is important enough to collect because it acts as a model to what books in Kelmscott Press looked like as well as insight to how they were made. Edward Burne-Jones originally created the illustrations for the Kelmscott Press version of this book, and his same illustrations are included in this version of the book. His illustrations and work with print is valuable enough to collect. The patterns showcase the elements found in late 19th century and early 20th century art movements such as the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement was centered around opposition to industrialization, and these illustrations remind viewers of prints from German Renaissance artists such as Albrecht Durer (1). This book embodies the Arts and Crafts spirit of being reactionary to industry, even the patterns involve elements in nature heavily.

William Morris created Kelmscott Press to cope with his distaste of the Industrial Revolution. He was from England where the Industrial Revolution really started to pick up pace around the mid 19th century. He was not opposed to industry as a whole, but rather to how industry changed objects. Before the Industrial Revolution, a chair was usually custom made or made with care by a craftsman. Once the Industrial Revolution began to kick into high gear, that same chair was made by machines which used cheap materials to ensure a higher profit. Chairs were no longer thoughtfully designed, rather everything that could be done affordably to make it appear fancy was done. Chairs were being put out in the same styles over and over again. For example, the designs featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace were overly ornate and ignored the qualities that the materials used possessed (2). This is where the Arts and Crafts movement began to erupt. William Morris was the leader of this movement and believed that all designers must have a working knowledge of any media they used. And thus he created the private press, Kelmscott Press.

Kelmscott Press created high quality, hand-bound books and I think that this facsimile I experienced holds up the standards Morris put in place. The binding of the book was durable and reminiscent of its time. The front of the book was almost made of a leathery material which was often used in old books. The pages consisted of text and images with margins surrounding the entire page. I really enjoyed how the illustrations were contrasted by the margins because the patterns were usually so busy in appearance. The illustrations show collaborative effort between two designers–Morris and Edward Burne-Jones who worked closely together throughout the entirety of Kelmscott Press.  Although this book is not the original book published in Morris’ Kelmscott Press, it gives the audience who interacts with it a feel for how that original book would have truly felt to look at.

In conclusion, my favorite part of experiencing this book was turning the pages. I thoroughly enjoyed how one page would be filled with initials and text and then I would turn the page and have a completely new experience taking in the intricate illustrations and patterns. I did not really care for how cumbersome the book was, but the size of the book made the images more impactful and the text was easier to read. Looking at all the other books in the collection, I found this one to be my favorite for the contrast shown in the illustrations. They gave an element of surprise that will stay with me. I hope to visit Special Collections again at North Carolina State University to experience all kinds of books.

Photo by Hannah Sudduth

Photo by Hannah Sudduth



(1) Rich, Sarah. “Art of the German Renaissance.” Powerpoint Lecture, Boone, NC, 2/13/17.

(2) Flinchum, Russell. “Unknown.” First Day of Design History (ADN 492) Lecture, Raleigh, NC, 1/8/18/