Welcome to the Kelmscott Chaucer Online. Here you will be able to explore what is widely considered to be the most beautiful book ever produced. The website contains all 87 wood-engraved illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the 18 frames, 14 borders, and 26 decorative words designed by William Morris for their final project together published in 1896. I hope that this website gives you an intimate experience of this extraordinary book, akin to looking at all this material in the peacefulness of a library, or on your desk at home. It is a highly curated experience, where each of the visual elements that make up the book can be investigated individually, or holistically, within the context in which they appear on the page. For the best experience, please use the website on your desktop.
The Kelmscott Chaucer Online allows users to explore all the visual aspects of the book (the illustrations, the borders, frames, and the illustrated capitals). The only aspect they cannot investigate fully is the whole text. The Kelmscott Chaucer is very much a book to be looked at rather than read. All images have been scanned in to a high resolution and can be magnified in-browser as well. Due to the relative high resolution of the images, when magnifying, please do wait a few seconds for the images to load fully – it will be worth it!
Obviously, nothing can replace the experience of studying the material book itself, but I hope that this website makes the Kelmscott Chaucer accessible in a way that is both playful and user-friendly. To paraphrase William Morris, I hope users find the website 'beautiful and useful'. I have confidence that in presenting the book like this, it will open-up new areas of study and research that may have been overlooked in the past. And if it does not, then at least there is fun to be had with the colouring book.
You are free to download, browse, share, remix, research, or use this website in whatever ways you can imagine. If you do use the images in any way, please reference where you got them from. Something along the lines of 'Michael John Goodman, Kelmscott Chaucer Online, www.KelmscottChaucerOnline'. Or better yet, get in contact and tell me how you are planning on using this website in your projects. It is always lovely and exciting to hear from people and learn about their work.
The Kelmscott Chaucer is a masterpiece of book and graphic design, and the jewel in the crown of Morris's Kelmscott Press. The poet W.B Yeats described the book as 'the most beautiful of all printed books', while a contemporary review in the Athenaeuem observed that 'In its own style, the book is, beyond dispute, the finest ever issued'. The book is also only one of three, along with Shakespeare's First Folio and the Gutenberg Bible, to have a census dedicated to it, to determine who owns a copy.
The Kelmscott Chaucer was four years in the making with Burne-Jones spending every Sunday working on the illustrations, and Morris working on the typographical and ornamental elements of the book, strongly believing that these qualities determine a book's meaning and overall quality. Both Morris and Burne-Jones, who met as undergraduates at Oxford in the 1850s, were fascinated by Chaucer (Morris called the typeface he created for the Kelmscott Chaucer, 'Chaucer') and medievalism, and the Kelmscott Chaucer is the creative outcome of this interest. Sadly, Morris died just several months after the publication of the book, aged 62, while Burne-Jones died two years later in 1898, aged 64.
When Burne-Jones and Morris were near to completing the Kelmscott Chaucer, Burne-Jones commented that ‘it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.’ The Kelmscott Chaucer Online has been very much a ‘pocket project’ for me, a relatively smallish endeavour that nevertheless has been both creatively and intellectually rewarding. Book design (both historical and contemporary) is an area I am fascinated by, so it has been a wonderful experience for me to immerse myself in the world of William Morris and the late 19th Century, and to think through how best to re-present the visual elements that make up the book for an online 21st Century audience. Indeed, what makes this site unique is how it breaks down each of the visual components that make up the book, allowing each user to contemplate and think through the design and artistic decisions made by Morris and Burne-Jones.
According to the British Library, only 425 copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer were originally produced, alongside 13 copies printed on vellum and another 48 bound in pig's skin. The edition I have used for this project is a facsimile from the 1950s that has sat on my shelf for many years. It was only when I was doing some research into William Morris and the Kelmscott press for another project that I discovered that the book had not been made available online in a way that was particularly accessible, attractive, or user-friendly. Photographic reproductions do exist, but the couple of sites where they appear are difficult to navigate, alienating users in the process, and giving the impression that this book is not for them in a way that underscores the perception that the study of Book History is only being available to certain select groups. The Kelmscott Chaucer Online hopes to change this perception (even if just slightly), by making this book accessible to all in a way that is creative and enjoyable to use.
Outside of photographic reproduction, digitisation is possible using a flat-bed scanner, as I have used here. However, digitisation projects are quite hard, generally, and the Kelmscott Chaucer is actually a difficult book to digitise in this way: it is rather large, meaning that most domestic scanners would be hard pressed to fully scan in the pages in and they are often very tightly bound into the book in any case. This means that any special collection's library who are lucky enough to own an original copy are likely to be very reluctant to embark upon any form of digitisation due to the significant risk of damage that process could inflict upon the book. Furthermore, William Morris actually conceived many of the illustrations and designs in the book as double page spreads meaning that to maintain a significant part of the book's visual power a digitiser would have to invest in a rather large scanner. Luckily enough, for me, Photoshop allows us to do all sorts of exciting things through stitching images together, to ensure that audiences get a real taste of what the Kelmscott Chaucer is actually like.
One of the major criticisms at the time of Morris's Kelmscott Press was the fact that as a man with socialist ideals, his Press was selling incredibly rarefied books that only the wealthy could afford. His Press was actually a response to commodity culture, and the way books and book design had become part of an industry that Morris felt had lost touch with the craft and art of book making – the need to mass produce books and industrialisation meant that a book -makers artistic potential was being restrained. The Kelmscott Press sought to rectify this by printing by hand 53 beautiful books between 1891 and 1898. Writing in 1893, Morris wrote in 'The Ideal Book' that 'The picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man's life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive.' I hope that by looking at the images on this website, the Kelmscott Chaucer will reach new audiences and and that it will, if not give them endless pleasure, make them smile for a few minutes.
–– Michael John Goodman
Read an interview Michael gave about the project in PRINT Mag: What Do William Morris and Sgt. Pepper Have in Common?
Dr Michael John Goodman is an independent researcher, writer and educator who uses art and design as modes of enquiry to bring together objects and artefacts so that we may see them in new ways. He is the creator of the Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery, an online resource that contains all the original illustrations from Charles Dickens's novels, and the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, another open-access online resource that contains over 3000 illustrations from the most significant illustrated Shakespeare editions in the Victorian period. His most recent project is 'Paint the Picture to the Word: Shakespeare Illustration & AI Art' and is available here.