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Kelmscott Press and Victorian Medievalism

An Online Exhibit of the Kelmscott Press

History of the Kelmscott Press

In November 1888, William Morris' lifelong friend Emery Walker gave a lecture that deeply touched Morris. His friend's words inspired Morris to design his own type and gain a deeper involvement in the technique of book printing. A few years later in 1891, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith, England, and printed its first volume, The Glittering Plain. Over the course of seven years, the Press published 53 titles in 66 volumes, all distinct with the exception of The Glittering Plain. A second edition in 1894 was released, this time in larger format and boasting the only set of illustrations Walter Crane designed for the Kelmscott Press.

Inspired by incunables (books printed in the West before 1501), the Kelmscott Press adhered to the aesthetics of medieval form for the books it printed. Morris assembled a talented group to carry out production of high-quality books that met his exacting standards. Emery Walker served as typographical advisor, Edward Burne-Jones illustrated many of the works, and  F. S. Ellis edited the texts. 

Morris' identity as a renowned artist in the Arts and Crafts Movement played a large role in his perspective on craftsmanship as well as the relationship between physical texts and their readership. Kelmscott Press publications reveal his ideas about aesthetics and careful attention to detail–vegetal motifs for ornamentation beckoned to the idyllic and peaceful livelihood of the Middle Ages, and typography was equidistant and balanced as to not overwhelm the eye. 

Although Morris utilized advents of modern printing, the Press prioritized invention over imitation, publishing 22,000 copies of Pre-Raphaelite, Medieval, and Gothic literatures. These works included stories, which were written, translated, and adapted from a wide range of authors, such as Chaucer, Tennyson, Keats, and Shakespeare. 

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