November 15

“Let’s make a new fount of type.” With that statement was born on November 15, 1888 that unique creation known as the Kelmscott Press. The speaker was William Morris, craftsman in design, poet, painter, essayist, who was walking home with his friend Emery Walker following the latter’s address before the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.

Using as his models two types designed by the Venetian printers Nicolas Jenson and Jacob Rubeus in 1476, Morris by photographic enlargements worked out his ideas, resulting in a letter which be named the Golden type. This name was taken from the title of The Golden Legend, a book with which he intended to initiate his new font. The purchase of equipment and the hiring of printers followed, and on March 2, 1891, the first Kelmscott sheet was printed. Morris next designed a blackletter type patterned on the types of Schoeffer of Mainz, Zainer of Augsburg, and Koburger of Nuremberg. This medieval type was cut, as had been the Golden type, by Edward P. Prince, who was to cut the punches for many of the private presses which followed in the footsteps of the Kelmscott.

The third type used by Morris was designed for his edition of Chaucer and given that name. It is the same type as the Troy but of smaller size, being 12-point as against 18-point of the earlier font. A fourth type was discussed but it was never produced.

Fifty-three books and nine leaflets and announcements constitute the output of the Press, all printed on Albion hand presses upon hand-made paper or upon vellum. The work remains an enduring monument to a man who knew what he wanted to do and how to write about it. In A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, Morris said, “I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.”

Of course he did not succeed completely in this endeavor. To modern eyes, the types of the Kelmscott editions are too heavy for easy reading. But as examples of the pressman’s skill his books are all magnificent, each letter being stamped solidly into the paper. Today they remain as black and crisp as though they had just been imprinted. The Kelmscott books must be seen in the original in order to appreciate them fully as examples of the printer’s craft. They will be recognized as such for a long time to come, no matter how the factors of legibility and readability may change.

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