A facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer (1958 facsimile of 1896 edition.)

For this assignment, I decided to study Works. A facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer (1958 facsimile of 1896 edition.) This book is inspired by the traditional style of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. It has very finely detailed linework for the stylized letters, illustrations, and borders throughout the book. All of the borders and letters contain very natural forms such as vines, leaves, and flowers, which were very common to see in historical illuminated manuscripts. These forms are then intricately woven together to create a flowy pattern across the page, leaving the eye around the swirling lines. The amount of intricate line work and detailing seen in the printing process is breathtaking. The hard work that had to go into designing and illustrating this book is very apparent to anyone who looks upon the intricate page designs. 

The font choice of the book is very reminiscent of those older inked letters inside manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The typeface is very angular, which also widens and thins out in a way that looks like it was handwritten by a pen. This typeface also has serifs, adding to the historic pen-like quality to the text. Another prominent feature in the visuals is the use of lines in creating textures in the illustrations. For example, there are lines where clothes folds are, curved lines on tree branches, ridges on walls, and many more instances where this occurs. William Morris makes use of putting lines closer together to imitate textures while drawing lines further apart to make a space feel flat. This style of drawing allows for very realistic and detailed figures to be featured along with the stories in this book.

The Kelmscott Chaucer is very large and heavy with lots of pages. The pages themselves also have a nice weight to them. One thing that also stuck out to me physically was the cover. It was very thick to help support the weight of all the pages inside the book. It also had very intricate carvings, much like the pages inside, leaving it with an interesting rigid texture that feels interesting to glide your hand over. However, the cover was monochromatic, making it so the viewer doesn’t notice that the pattern is actually carved into the cover at first. To really see all the little details of the carvings you have to tilt the book at an angle and take a closer examination of the shadows and depths. There are many small details that one can get lost in while reading this book. All the print works have such nice detail that makes them wonderful to just stare at and take in all the various elements of each illustration. 

The size and weight of the book alone helps make it feel grandiose and powerful. This comes in handy when making the book feel more spiritual and grand to the reader, helping form its emotional connection and impact. When thinking about the period the original was created, it makes sense that the book takes a lot of religious art influence as that was the main form of art in the Middle Ages. The attention to detail and the styling also feels like the intricate stained glass windows of a church. This creates a very spiritual way of storytelling through its design as the viewer is in awe of the unique features of the detailed artwork and lettering, much like one feels while stepping into a beautifully designed church. 

This book is important to collect as it highlights the strong points made during the arts and crafts movement, even if it is a reproduction of the original 1896 edition. William Morris wanted to create art that was beautiful, in contrast to the harshness of the industrial revolution. He went back to the beautifully detailed work of the late 14th early 15th centuries to create this work based on Geoffry Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. He also used many techniques that were present in 15th-century printing, such as replicating traditional dyes, reused type from Nicholas Jenson in the 1470s, and insisted on creating his own paper in the way that was done in the 15th century. This book is a great example of the fundamentals of the arts and crafts movement, which wanted to go back to the old methods of craftwork during a time period that was focused on utility and function over design.

The author, William Morris, is a prolific figure himself that draws attention to the book. He was not just a designer, but a craftsman, writer, and socialist thinker. Morris founded the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. decorative arts firm in 1861 with other artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Philip Webb. Morris was concerned about the lack of decorative art during the industrial period, claiming that it killed art. A large focus of his life was the beneficial effects of art and design to society, which was why he really focused on book design, printing, and typography and looking at how form and style are important in these mediums. Morris is seen as the most influential artist in the arts and crafts movement with his ideas on political and design reformation.  

Many book design enthusiasts can also agree that William Morris’ illustrations and penmanship in creating this work are exquisite, really refining the historic illuminated manuscript medium. He had a very decorative style (heavily based on the medieval era) that was very visually appealing. This book would be created near the end of William Morris’ lifetime, being finalized only a few months before his death. The Kelmscott Chaucer is one of the 66 books printed by the Kelmscott Press, which was founded by Morris in 1891. Their books would be printed in a medieval style, and would also be bound in the style of that time period. The Kelmscott Chaucer is the most famous release from the press company and for rightful reasons. It’s a beautiful reflection back to the days of illuminated manuscripts that was really needed during a time period that didn’t see the value of intricate design and craftsmanship.


Example of the detail of the textures in the illustration work.


The detail of the imprinted design on the front cover.


Detail of the medieval style lettering and decorating.