The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, printed by William Morris' Kelmscott Press 125 years ago this week, set a new standard for book design at the end of the 19th century, which its number of illustrations and rich decorative borders.
Masters of the arts and crafts movement were involved in its conception – William Morris designed the title page, borders, initial letters and ornaments and Edward Burne-Jones created the woodcut illustrations.
Considered the greatest work of the Kelmscott Press, the Kelmscott Chaucer was a culmination of William Morris's vision for the ideal, finely crafted book.
In founding the Kelmscott Press, Morris sought to revive the art of hand-printing, derived from exemplars of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. The Press celebrates its 130th anniversary this year running from 1891 until 1898 – and two years after Morris’s death in 1896, the year the Kelmscott Chaucer was published.
National Trust curator Tim Pye said: “The National Trust is incredibly fortunate to have, within the library at Wightwick Manor, a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer – one of the most important and most beautiful books to have ever been printed.
“It is William Morris’s masterpiece, a remarkable example of book design that truly epitomises the aims of the Arts and Crafts movement.”
The Kelmscott Chaucer was donated to the National Trust in 2007 and is one of only 48 copies bound in white pigskin by the Doves Bindery.
Mr Pye added: “It’s arguably the greatest example of book design ever produced.
"We are very pleased to be able to put the Chaucer on display, together with other Morris treasures, for visitors to enjoy as part of the book’s 125th anniversary celebrations.”
Wightwick Manor’s house and collections manager, Helen Bratt-Wyton, said: “Wightwick is fortunate to contain eight Kelmscott Press books – six of which were donated to Sir Geoffrey Mander by his friend Sir Sydney Cockerell, who was Morris’s Private Secretary and later his literary executor.
“Cockerell, who later became Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, also gave Sir Geoffrey an original letter and border designs by William Morris as well as other Kelmscott Press ephemera, which we are displaying as part of the anniversary celebrations.
“Interestingly and rather fittingly, Cockerell’s sister’s Godmother was National Trust founder Octavia Hill.”
Visitors will be able to see the Kelmscott Chaucer and the other Kelmscott Press memorabilia on display at Wightwick Manor until November. Tickets need to be pre-booked by visiting nationaltrust.org.uk/wightwickmanor