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Department Collection

Kelmscott Chaucer

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Morris
(1834-1896), Kelmscott Press, 1896,
frontispiece

Fine Printed Books

The 10,000 printed books assembled by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745-1816) and bequeathed by him to the University of Cambridge constitute one of the most valuable historical and research collections in England. They are housed in a room designed in the nineteenth-century to reproduce a gentleman’s library and to reflect the varied interests of an eighteenth-century scholar, book lover, and art connoisseur. The core of his Library consists of volumes on major figures and events in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European history, engravings after works by the Old Masters, illustrated literature on travel and exploration, the natural sciences, and the history of architecture, together with Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities. Among them are magnificent volumes associated with the Sun-King, Louis XIV, and with William Hamilton, husband of Lord Nelson’s Emma. Augmented by twentieth-century gifts, bequests, and purchases, the collection includes valuable incunables printed in Venice, Rome, Verona, Mainz, Strasburg, and Paris in the 1470s and the 1480s, the elephantine edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1830), and a complete set of William Morris’ books including his celebrated Kelmscott Chaucer.

Examples

Les plaisirs de l’île enchantée
Paris, 1673, pl. 100

Viscount Fitzwilliam’s love for fine books and for things French is well represented by this volume. It bears the title of the magnificent festivities which Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) gave in the gardens of Versailles to 600 guests between 6 and 13 May 1664. Officially organised in honour of the Queen-Mother, Anne of Austria, and Louis’ consort, Marie-Thérèse, they were really dedicated to Louise de la Vallière, the king’s mistress. The parks re-designed to stage concerts, theatrical performances, ballets, fireworks, spectacles, balls, and exotic banquets brought together leading poets, dramatists, musicians, and artists to celebrate the wealth and power of the royal court. Similarly, this volume, of which limited copies were printed under the auspices of the Sun King and presented as diplomatic gifts, pressed the arts into the service of the absolute monarchy.
Founder’s Bequest, 1816

Pierre-François Hugues, called Baron d’Hancarville
Antiquités Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines, tirées du cabinet de M. William Hamilton
Naples: François Morelli, 1766-1767 [correct date c. 1776]

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), British Plenipotentiary to Naples and husband of Lord Nelson’s Emma, was the first collector to acknowledge the Greek origin of the vases, which up until then were considered Etruscan. The catalogue of his first collection, illustrated with magnificent hand-coloured engravings and often ‘enhancing’ the ancient models with illusionistic tromp l’oeil shadows, was inspired by the current fashion for elaborate publications on Grand Tour artefacts. The proportions of vases were meticulously drawn to provide contemporary craftsmen with refined classical models. Josiah Wedgwood was among the first to incorporate the wealth of material into his designs.
Founder’s Bequest, 1816

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
Printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1896

William Morris had first conceived of this edition in the earliest days of the Kelmscott Press, but the project was not completed until just before his death. It is his crowning achievement as a book designer and remains the best-known of the 66 titles issued by his Press. It encapsulates his life-long fascination with books as a reader and writer, and his credo as a designer that texts should be printed with ‘a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read’. By July 1892, he had developed the Chaucer type, reducing and ‘Gothicising’ the earlier Troy type. He designed the white pigskin binding, the title page, borders, initials, and frames, but entrusted the illustrations to Edward Burne-Jones. Eighty-five of his delicate pencil drawings and letters discussing their execution are preserved at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The printing began in August 1894 and the first two full copies were delivered to Morris and Burne-Jones in June 1896. The Kelmscott Chaucer was originally on sale for £20 – considered quite expensive at the time – and, as can be seen from the notice, the elaborate binding with silver clasps added another £13. In 2003 a plain-bound paper copy sells for over £30,000, while passionate collectors may pay twice as much for a pigskin-bound vellum Kelmscott Chaucer.
Given by William Morris to his elder daughter, Jane Alice,
who bequeathed it to the Museum in 1935.