Works. A facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, Author: Chaucer, Geoffrey

Works of Chaucer Opening Page (Morris)

I was drawn to William Morris’s iteration of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer primarily due to my love for the Canterbury Tales and the usage of his inventive and entertaining Middle English. While this version of the text was published in 1896, the version I examined was a 1958 facsimile (exact copy). That being said, the book retained the fantastic printing and design of the original and is an incredibly interesting tome as such.

My first visual impressions of the book as It lay open on the table was the sheer intricacy of the artwork around the typography that harkened back to the old scribed texts of medieval England. It said to me that this book had care put into not just the reproduction of Chaucer’s Middle English, but especially the manner in which the language is presented. The book’s profile was not as massive as some others on display but it was also not small either. It was about the size of an average science textbook (though the similarities end there with this book possessing all the intricacies and beauty in artwork and type that calculus textbooks are incapable of producing). The paper was of a seemingly decent quality, nothing more superb than most modern books.

The tactile experience of this book is nice in the sense that holding real paper in our technology age is refreshing, but beyond that, I wouldn’t say that it felt as interesting as some of the older books on display. As this version was printed in the 1950s, the smell was slightly dated though not as much as some of the 19th century prints. Perhaps the most physically interesting aspect of this book is the integration of design and text, with neither seeming to really dominate one another on the more decorative pages. The thought that clearly went into the encompassment of text within art is a physical triumph because, in my eyes, the design embellishes the story instead of distracts from it.

General Prologue Pages (Morris)

In the portraits of the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales shown above, the text is printed with embellished lettering heading every new characters description, helping with organization in an artistically and ocularly appealing fashion. While these pages are all text with no design around the margins, the typography and organization of the text itself is more than enough create an heir of exclusivity around the book, something which no doubt was the case for contemporary customers of William Morris and his work.

Man of Law’s Tale Beginning (Morris)

The above page illustrates what is an intricate and gorgeous painting depicting the protagonist in the Man of Law’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales on her rudderless boat, cast out into the sea as punishment for her faith as the story would have it. The picture is situated within more intricate designs of vines and flora, working together seamlessly yet, with clear and distinct borders. Such artistry in a work as lengthy and ambitious as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is impressive in both quality and scope, culminating with a fascinating and delightfully composed iteration of his complete works by William Morris. All of this detail naturally is of much delight to me as a fan of art and literature. The combination of both things tied with one of my favorite authors is a wonderful experience, all thanks to the physical nature and presentation of the book.

Why is this book important?

As if the design alone wasn’t reason enough, there are many reasons why such a book would be housed in NCSU’s Special Collections. For one, The Canterbury Tales is one of the most famous works of English literature as specifically, it was written in Middle English, a language developing in a time when governmental affairs and high society were conducted in the French language. Thus, it was rare during the 14th century to have any books written in anything other than latin (the Bible) or in French as that was the language of highest repute. The written words and the stories told by them are a crucial aspect of understanding both the evolution of the English language during its transition from old English to what is considered modern English, and some cultural understanding of Britons during the same time period. In my eyes, such a work is then important enough to collect based on that merit. The importance of Chaucer aside as his works have been in print for over 600 years, this particular book brings in the design work of another famous artisan of well repute: William Morris the British designer and artist. William Morris was one of the pioneering members of the Art Nouveau design period which was extremely popular when he published his version of Chaucer’s works in 1896, the same year in which he died (William Morris Artworks & Famous Art).  As one of the quintessential works of the Art Nouveau period coming from one of the founding members of the movement, one might find another reason for the collection of such a book. The design language presenting in the typography and artwork is something that was tediously constructed and like any great works of art should be celebrated and curated acordingly. Because William Morris is such crucial part of graphic design history, the collection of one of his works, even if only a replica, is well warranted in order to study and appreciate the work in person. Additionally, the fact that the design of William Morris is coupled with the famous words and wisdoms of Middle English author Geoffrey Chaucer is a testament to the paradigmatic nature of both of their fields. Chaucer would go on to be famous six centuries after his death and William Morris is revered equally for his prevalent and potent influence on the arts and design as a whole. As such, it makes sense for such a collaboration and confluence of pioneering creativity, separated by 500 years, to occur in a physical book that has stood the relative testament of time to hold a spot in the libraries of universities all the way across the great big pond. All reasons mentioned are more than ample in describing exactly why this book deserves its due reverence and why its collectability is of paramount standing.

Will all of this in mind, I have decided that I must win the lottery so I can collect an original so I may read it one day…

Sites Used: