Private Press Books at St John’s College

The Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press was founded by William Morris (1834-1896) in 1891. It is not only arguably the most renowned English private press, it is also often presented as the first one. Inspired by medieval illustrated manuscripts and early printed books, Morris’s aim was to return to the manual process of book making and, as Morris said, “to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type” (Fiona MacCarthy, “William Morris (1834-1896)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2009)).

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend of Master William Caxton Done Anew (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892) Shelfmark: Vet.Trans.4-6

St John’s holds only one publication of the Kelmscott Press: the three-volume edition of The Golden Legend from 1892. The Golden Legend (or Legenda aurea) was a popular 13th-century collection of saints’ lives. England’s first printer, William Caxton, translated the stories into English from a variety of Latin and French source texts. Caxton’s translation omitted and changed some of his source material, and he added Irish and English saints. It is Caxton’s text which was newly edited for this publication and accompanied by illustrations from Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Morris manufactured an old-style font he called “Golden Type” for this publication. It was based on the type designed by the early book printer Nicolas Jenson in the late 15th century.

St John’s copy arrived as part of a larger donation made by Dunstan Skilbeck in memory of his father Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-54), an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones. As enticing as it may be to think that this edition was a gift to him from his friends, Clement Oswald does not appear to have been the volumes’ first owner. All volumes of this donation, including The Golden Legend, have bookplates that, although designed by Clement Oswald, name “John H. Skilbeck” as the owner. I was able to identify John H. as the father of Clement Oswald, but not much information is available about him. He appears to have been a Victorian businessman and possibly a collector of artefacts.

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