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The Kelmscott Chaucer

The Kelmscott Press was established in 1891 to fulfil Morris's wish to print beautiful books. During the seven years of its existence it published a total of 52 works in 66 volumes. By far the most ornate of these is the large single volume containing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now universally known as The Kelmscott Chaucer.

Morris had strong views on the effect he wanted to achieve, sourcing suitable paper and inks. He created his own fonts and specified the size of margins and spaces between words or lines. His old friend Edward Burne-Jones, with whom he had read Chaucer aloud when they were students at Oxford, provided 87 illustrations; the rest – decorative initials, frames and borders, small devices and the title page – are by Morris himself.

Printing of the 425 paper and 13 vellum copies took almost two years and was finished only six months before Morris died. The book was not cheap: paper copies cost £20 and vellum £120 (approximately £2,400 and £14,500 today), with pigskin binding costing an additional £13 (now £1,500), but the edition sold out. It is not very colourful – only red and black inks were used – but it is stunning.

Shelfmark: Press B KEL 1896 2

Helen McGinley

Helen McGinley has worked in the Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections since 2004. She has a love of books in general, and children's and illustrated books in particular, and enjoys sharing her excitement through the department's blog and Twitter feed.