Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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William Morris and His Circle

This web exhibition of "William Morris and His Circle" incorporates selected images derived from the 1996 Ransom Center exhibition which contained over seventy-five items, including manuscripts of William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, D.G. Rossetti, examples of the Kelmscott Press's work, and four pastels by Rossetti.

William Morris

Morris's Circle

Morris As Socialist

The Founding of the Kelmscott Press

The Work of the Kelmscott Press

Additional Resources

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William Morris

Photograph of William Morris. Click to enlarge.

William Morris

When William Morris (1834-1896) died at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." This multi-faceted man was at one time or another (and sometimes simultaneously) a designer and manufacturer of furniture, stained glass, tapestries, wallpaper and chintzes; an accomplished weaver; a pioneering preservationist; an active Socialist and social reformer; a successful poet and novelist; and in his last years, the founder of the Kelmscott Press. Yet all of these activities were of a piece, unified by several threads in the tapestry of Morris's life.

One continuity, dating from early childhood, was his love of nature, evidence of which may be found in the fond natural descriptions of his letters and poetry, the patterns of his tapestries, and the vining borders of the Kelmscott book. There was also his passionate devotion to the Middle Ages and to everything they represented; romantic Medievalism informs Morris's literary output, as well as his arts and crafts work and the books from his Kelmscott Press.

A third thread was his belief that it is impossible to separate esthetic issues from social and political ones. Morris often contrasted the social organization of the Middle Ages with the present condition of England, which led him to advocate a complete reform of industrial society. At first, he advocated an overhaul of the flawed esthetics of the age and later, realizing that such reform alone was insufficient, a thoroughgoing political revolution.

One must also mention his conviction that it was impossible for an artist to exist outside the context of a community. Thus Morris's homes in London's Red Lion Square, Red House in Kent, Kelmscott House in Hammersmith near London, and Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire became centers of communal artistic and intellectual endeavor. Morris's talent for friendship was another continuity in his life. Though he was a somewhat solitary child, as a university student he formed enduring attachments to the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These close friendships influenced his choice of a life devoted to art. Some of the other figures surrounding Morris include the engraver and book historian Emery Walker and the bookbinder and printer T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. These and lesser lights such as Charles Augustus Howell and Charles Fairfax Murray are well represented in the Ransom Center collections, which incorporate important Pre-Raphaelite research materials. We hope that this exhibition provides insight into this polymorphously creative man's milieu and his sometimes turbulent relationships with his friends.

Richard W. Oram
Ransom Center Librarian
Exhibition Curator

Morris's Circle

Topsy and Ned Jones. Click to enlarge.

Max Beerbohm. "Topsy and Ned
Jones, Settled on the Settle
in Red Lion Square," from
Rossetti and His Circle.
London: Heinemann, 1922.

Christina Rossetti Sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Click to enlarge.

Christina Rossetti.Verses.
London: Privately printed, 1847.

Image of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's inscription to Edward Burne-Jones. Click to enlarge.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Poems. London: F.S.
Ellis, 1870. Author's
signed presentation copy
to Edward Burne-Jones.

Beerbohm sets up an amusing physical contrast between the emaciated painter Edward Burne-Jones ("Ned Jones") and the portly Morris (known to his close friends as "Topsy," because his unruly hair reminded them of the character in Uncle Tom's Cabin). It was Burne-Jones who introduced Morris to the somewhat older painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In the late 1850s, the London home of Burne-Jones and Morris in Red Lion Square became the center of a lively circle of artists and writers.

At one time or another, this impressive association copy was inscribed by or passed through the hands of Frances Rossetti (wife of Gabriele Rossetti) and their children Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, and William M. Rossetti. It has been opened to a sensitive pencil sketch of the reclusive poet Christina Rossetti by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti's burst of intense creative activity in the late 1860s prompted him to think about publishing a collection of poetry. In 1869, he was impelled to ask his friend Charles Augustus Howell to dig up his wife's grave and recover the unpublished manuscript interred with her. After being dipped in antiseptic, the early poems were salvaged and published in this collection, along with "The House of Life" sonnets and other later works. At this stage in his career, Rossetti felt that his paintings were being surpassed by those of Burne-Jones, to whom this copy is inscribed.

In the 1870s, Rossetti began to take increasingly large doses of chloral for his insomnia. His native depression and paranoia deepened, and he found himself increasingly at odds with his friends, including Morris. The two men co-leased Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, but Morris refused to live there while his wife and Rossetti were in residence. Rossetti, for his part, blamed Morris for imprisoning Janey in a loveless marriage.

Morris as Socialist

Hammersmith Socialist Society program. Click to enlarge.

Hammersmith Socialist Society
program, September 1895.
From the Emery Walker papers.

Petition in Favour of Hammersmith Costermongers. Click to enlarge.

"Petition in Favour of Hammersmith
Costermongers," no date [early 1890s?].
From the Emery Walker papers.

Toward the end of the 1870s, Morris became increasingly involved in political activism, and by 1883 he had joined H. M. Hyndman's Socialist League. Rejecting Hyndman's grand plan to unify all socialist groups in England, Morris helped form the new Socialist League and became the editor of its journal. His radicalism reached its height in 1885, and he was arrested for disorderly conduct (but later discharged) during a socialist demonstration. When the Socialist League waxed more extreme and the prospects for real revolution grew dim, Morris left the organization and founded the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which met at Kelmscott House and served as a forum for Sunday evening lectures and discussion on political and social issues.

Morris's political activity should never be set off from his work as artist, craftsman, book designer, poet, and novelist; all his artistic and literary pursuits were of a piece in the sense that each contributed in its own way to the betterment of Victorian culture, and by extension, to the reformation of society as a whole.

In the last few years of his life, a rapidly aging Morris was preoccupied with the Kelmscott Press and less inclined to political activism. Radical socialism and Anarchism had passed their zenith in England, and more gradualist movements such as Fabianism were in the ascendant. Preoccupied with the Kelmscott Press, Morris largely limited his direct political participation to the Sunday evening lectures at the Kelmscott House. The program includes Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, representing the Fabian Society, and Morris himself, speaking on a non-political topic.

Signed by Morris, the Burne-Jones, and W.H. Hooper, the Kelmscott Press's engraver. These, along with Emery Walker, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, and others, were members of the close-knit circle of Hammersmith socialists in the 1890s.

The Founding of the Kelmscott Press

Morris was interested in book design long before he was inspired by Emery Walker's illustrated lecture on printing in November 1888. This event, however, catalyzed Morris's plan to design a new font of type with Walker's help. "Here is a new craft to conquer and to perfect," he wrote. A year later, he determined to found a private press to realize his dream of printing the "ideal book." Thus began what he called his "little typographical adventure." Printing at the Kelmscott Press began in the spring of 1891. During the intervening two years, he designed first the "Golden" Roman typeface and later the "Troy" Gothic type, along with its smaller relation "Chaucer."

Morris's thoughts on book design, which form the theoretical foundation for the Kelmscott Press's books, were collected in articles on "Printing" (1893, co-authored with Walker) and "The Ideal Book" (a lecture delivered that same year). Briefly stated, Morris believed that it was necessary to rethink all aspects of the printed book, returning to the examples of the fifteenth-century printers, who had managed to create books which were both beautiful and readable. He returned to the use of an iron (Albion) handpress, which not only produced more beautiful results than a machine press but was also capable of economically printing limited editions of several hundred copies. Eschewing machine-made materials, Morris succeeded in locating a particularly white unbleached handmade paper from the Batchelor mill, a suitable black ink manufactured by the German firm of Jaenecke, and high-quality vellum for text and bindings from Henry Band in Middlesex.

It was also necessary, he felt, to rethink the relationship between type, image, and decorative elements. Darker, more massive typefaces and less spacing between words and lines would produce a more striking effect than the typical grey page of modern commercial printing. Such text would be balanced by complementary illustrations, by which Morris meant woodcuts, rather than conventional wood or metal engravings. Finally, Morris argued that woodcut ornaments, borders, and initials were important, if not essential, elements, of the printed page; these were also appropriately part of what was fundamentally a handmade object. Whether or not Morris ultimately achieved his ideal of combining beauty with readability (most feel that he did not), his experiment has had a permanent effect on both private and commercial book design of this century.

The Work of the Kelmscott Press

Legenda Aurea page. Click to enlarge.

Legenda Aurea page.

A Proof of Initial Letters. Click to enlarge.

Proof of initial letters and borders printed
by the Kelmscott Press, no date.
From the Emery Walker papers.

William Morris's bookplate. Click to enlarge.

Jacobus de Voragine.
Legenda Aurea.
London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1512.
William Morris's copy, with his bookplate.

The woodcut initials and intricate borders (usually with floral or vine motifs) are directly related to the ornamentation of Morris's tapestries, chintzes, and wallpapers. They were specially designed to contribute to the total visual effect of the Kelmscott book, alongside the type, woodcut illustrations, paper, and ink, and were later imitated by scores of commercial and fine presses in England and (especially) the U.S. The initials were produced using a modern electrotyping process.

The Golden Legend finally appeared as the seventh book from the Kelmscott press, rather than the first, as was originally intended. The text, a thirteenth-century collection of lives of the saints, was chosen because of its centrality to medieval culture as well as its association with some of the most important early printers. Morris chose to use an English translation prepared by the first English printer, William Caxton, which he owned in a 1512 edition printed by Caxton's successor Wynkyn de Worde.

The Kelmscott Chaucer is widely regarded as the greatest fine press book ever produced, particularly in its text-on-vellum incarnation. Among all the works from the press, this monumental folio comes closest to Morris's vision of the "ideal book," with its illustrations, ornamentation, and type -a smaller version of the Troy type, called "Chaucer"-integrated with each other and inseparable.

Book page from Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Click to enlarge.

Geoffrey Chaucer. The
Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press,

The Golden Legend Text. Click to enlarge.

Jacobus de Voragine. The
Golden Legend.
Kelmscott Press, 1892.

Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now newly imprinted page. Click to enlarge.

Geoffrey Chaucer. The
Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press,
1896. Text on vellum copy
(1 of 13 vellum copies) and
paper copy in full white pigskin
binding (1 of 425 paper copies).

The Golden Legend page. Click to enlarge.

Jacobus de Voragine. The
Golden Legend.
Kelmscott Press, 1892.

The book's genesis dates from 1891 (in a broader sense it goes back to Morris's early fascination with Chaucer and his study of medieval manuscripts), and from the outset Morris regarded it as the final great work of his remaining years. The major obstacle to its completion was the transfer of Burne-Jones's eighty-seven drawings to wood blocks using a very complicated process. Although the illustrations are generally faithful to Chaucer's descriptions, Burne-Jones chose not to represent some of the earthier moments in the "Miller's Tale" and elsewhere. Morris himself prepared the borders and ornamentation, and these were then transferred to blocks by the engraver W.H. Hooper. The actual printing began on 8 August 1894; in early 1895 a second Albion press began to work alongside the first. During 1895, Morris's health continued to deteriorate, leading Burne-Jones to wonder if the project could ever be completed. The last blocks were finished around Easter 1896, with the first copies of the book delivered in early June. A few months later, Morris was dead.

One of the copies displayed is a vellum one, offered at a price of 120 guineas. Morris had gone to particular pains to insure a source of superior vellum for his books and at one time even thought of engaging the Pope's supplier! The effect produced by the intensely black Kelmscott ink, which rides on the surface of the vellum instead of sinking into paper, is a stunning one. The needlepoint binding dates from 1941.

The other displayed copy has the blindstamped pigskin binding designed by Morris and executed by Douglas Cockerell at the Doves Bindery. The Ransom Center owns in all four copies of the Chaucer.

Additional Resources

William Morris (Brown University)

The Rossetti Archive (University of Virginia)