Quality books for the masses: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

You may know William Morris as the 19th century designer and political commentator, and even spotted some of his wallpapers around Winterbourne House. But are you aware of his printing press? We have been researching what inspired Morris to establish the Kelmscott Press, and how it significantly impacted the printing industry.

Portrait of William Morris c. 1887
Portrait of William Morris c. 1887

The Industrial Revolution created an unprecedented demand for books. As they were still bound by hand in the mid 18th century, the printing trade struggled to keep up with this pressure. This resulted in the deterioration of binding quality due to unskilled labour forces and poor materials. Print quality continually worsened in subsequent decades for multiple reasons. The first of these was the beginning of the era of cheap literature, which began in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the repeal of censorship laws in 1861.

Additionally, the Industrial Revolution enabled the mechanisation of print for mass production. To keep up with increased demand, cheaper paper and binding materials were used and ink was frequently diluted with soap. Critics stated that the focus on speed of publications was corrupting the established standards of typography. William Morris agreed with this, championing the artistic and aesthetic qualities of print over mass production. He believed that the latter stifled the imagination of printers, and that good quality books should be available to all.

Morris’ socialist and artistic ideals intertwined in this regard. Influenced by art movements such as the Romantics, he was concerned that England’s urbanisation had dislocated huge sections of the population from traditional rural life. This had subjected them to grim social conditions, creating nostalgia for traditional ways of life before the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics advocated a return to the supposedly healthier and virtuous environment of the medieval period, which was viewed as the opposite of the Industrial Age. Morris also advocated for manufactured goods to be made with integrity and in less severe conditions.

A copy of illustrated pages found in the Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer
A copy of illustrated pages found in the Kelmscott Press edition of Chaucer

This Gothic Revival profoundly influenced Morris’s printing style upon his founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891. He believed the peak of printing came with Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, and that medieval culture had possessed an artistic excellence lost in later centuries. The wood engravings created to print the illustrations in his books were clearly inspired by medieval woodcuts, with their bold-stroked outlines and minimal shading. They also showcase his reverence for nature through the often-heavy floral influence in the designs.

Although illustrations were important to Morris, not all his works featured them. He believed that they should not be used to cover poor typography and prioritised coherence in his book designs. He found popular 19th century typefaces such as ‘undistinguished and boring, declaring the latter ‘the most illegible type that ever was cut’.

Consequently, Morris designed two typefaces of his own for the Kelmscott Press. His ‘Golden’ type was modelled on one created by the 15th century French printer Nicolas Jenson, while his ‘Troy’ type was a gothic font which emulated 15th-century German printers. A founding principle of the Kelmscott Press was the need to use good-quality materials. Therefore, handmade paper was used, and ink akin to the one used by printers in earlier centuries was imported from Germany. An Albion printing press was used – instead of the offset presses that were dominating the industry at the time – because of its advantage in printing detailed styles on handmade paper. The overall success of the Kelmscott Press must be attributed to William Morris’ personal involvement with all processes of the press, showing his dedication to proving that a printed book could be a work of art in its own right.

William Morris passed away in 1896, just five years after the Kelmscott Press was founded. His private secretary Sydney Cockerell decided to complete the books that were already in production, before disbanding the press in 1898, believing that the quality of any subsequent books produced would suffer without Morris’s guidance. In total, the Kelmscott Press produced 53 books in limited editions of around 300 each, of which the 1896 Chaucer publication was hailed the press’ ‘crowning achievement’ and ‘the finest book ever printed’ by contemporary critics.

It has been argued that Morris’s ambition for his quality of print to be readily available to everyone set trade printers a standard which was unrealistic and unaffordable for them to live up to. However, the global influence of the Kelmscott Press is undeniable despite its short tenure. Its legacy was continued by several private presses which were formed in the immediate years after Morris’ death, through which Morris’ printing principles were slowly transmitted to the wider printing world.

The most successful of these was the Doves Press. Through using the Kelmscott printing model without its grand ornament, they proved that Morris’ printing guidelines could successfully be applied to undecorated books. This earned their altered model the approval of printers who were previously against Morris’ practices. However, this would not have been possible without the influence of Morris’ theories and practices to begin with.

If you are interested in the process of 19th century printing, do visit the Winterbourne Press to view our historic printing presses in action.

Or join us for Fabulous Fonts – a full day of live printing demos, talks by international experts and a chance to examine some of the stars of our Typographic Library, on Tuesday 21 May. Tickets £37.  CTA: Find out more – https://www.winterbourne.org.uk/whats-on/fabulous-fonts/