“Works. A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Have you ever come across a piece of media that took you back in time? “Works. A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer”, by Geoffrey Chaucer was that piece of media for me. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was published by The World Publishing Company in Cleveland and New York around the 1950s. This facsimile, or exact copy, contains all eighty-seven illustrations of the original work (of 1896 edition) by Edward Burne-Jones. These illustrations are what initially drove me to research more about this book and arguably the most interesting aspect. 

When I first came across the book, the pages were already opened to these beautiful medieval styled artwork. The illustrations, of this book, were comprised of flowers, leaves, fruits and different figures of the stories displayed. The linework of these illustrations was highly detailed and stylized and presented various bold patterns and rich decorative borders. But what makes these illustrations stand out is the amount of black ink they used contrasted to the white of the paper. The ink itself presents itself so boldly that it catches the eye instantly. Because of this boldness, with every turn of the page, an element of surprise was right around the corner.

Typography and Illustrations of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

The typography of the book is very reminiscent of those of other works from the Middle Ages, closely resembling what we would call a blackletter. The typeface has thick serifs and bold outlines. Typically, blackletters of this type are usually hard to read as body text but this book does a nice job battling this as it adds large tracking between its letters. When the typeface is illustrated the letters take on dark outlines as the inside is usually blank or stylized. This large gothic type is presented in both red and black throughout the book. I feel when the text is shown in red, it adds a nice touch to the overall design of the book and adds to its boldness.

Cover of the The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

Looking more into the physical nature of the book, I notice the book is fairly large and quite heavy when lifted. Even the paper, itself, held some weight to it. You can also hear some weight as you flipped through the pages. I did notice that the book had a faint older smell, but not as much as I would expect. The pages, despite its appearance, wasn’t brittle as one would initially think but was frayed along the sides. The binding of the book is hardcover and is striped along with the seems. The cover that the book sports is an embossed one of a creamy color. The cover has a lot of intricate details which contrasts heavily with the details inside. These details felt pleasing to the touch because of the various engravings spread across the front. The creaminess of the cover mellows out the bold impact that the illustrations provide. However, the cover does present an angelic(almost heavenly) look to it. When comparing the cover to the illustrations, the phrase “the calm before the storm” comes to mind. Overall this is a beautiful piece of media and quite breathtaking.

The author, William Morris, was described as many things, most commonly as a designer of fabrics and wallpapers. Though in his spare time he would explore writing and the effects of socialism. Morris had a very decorative style which was heavily influenced by the works in the medieval era. Morris met Burne-Jones in college and from there a bond was born. Because of their fateful encounter, the two were able to work with one another on the book having Morris design the typeface, the overall composition, decorations of the lettering and Burne-Jones designing the illustrations.

As stated before, this book is a facsimile of the original that was printed in Morris’ Kelmscott Press. The Kelmscott Press was started in 1891, and during the production of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, it produced eighty-seven woodcut illustrations from the drawings of Edward Burne-Jones. The book was also one of the 66 books that were printed by the Kelmscott Press. The books printed by the press were medieval style, based on Morris’ love for the antiquated look. The Kelmscott Press was initially developed because of Morris’ disapproval of the quality of books that were being printed at the time. He sought, with the introduction of his printing press, to revive the beauty that he saw in previous medieval manuscripts and works.

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser: Page

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser: Cover

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer resembles that of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in both style and subject. Both works were printed with having similar covers and medieval art style, having heavy outline illustrations with similar blackletter typefaces. Even the splash of red was presented in both books. Both authors were partly motivated in some way of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, having grown an appreciation for the stories of the middle ages. Although, whereas The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer contains stories found in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer (as well as descriptions of each character) The Faerie Queene was Spenser’s own great poem telling the various adventures of  each one of Gloriana’s knights. Additionally, both works are similar in that they both tell stories of countless adventures. It was really interesting to see other works in the collection that bore the same resemblance to one another. Seeing how The Faerie Queene was printed around 1590, you can compare how Morris’ work captured the style from this Spenser’s from the middle ages. 

Overall I had a fun experience interacting with this piece. I was immensely drawn to the beautiful style the book possessed, its influences, and what it hoped to represent. The book was one of the ways for Morris to voice his heterodox opinions regarding the industrial age. The book fought against the norm of the quality of works currently being produced and brought back the stylistic beauty and uniqueness of historic value that was left behind. The book, itself, was a moment, which is what I believe to be the reason why the book earned its place in this collection.











Works. A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer by William Morris