Private Press Caxton

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

Oxford, St John’s College, Vet.Trans.4. Detail of the title-page

The three-volume edition of The Golden Legend from 1892 is St John’s College’s only holding of The Kelmscott Press. Founded by William Morris (1834-1896) in 1891, The Kelmscott Press is arguably the most renowned English private press. Inspired by medieval illustrated manuscripts and early printed books, Morris’s aim was to return to the manual process of book making and ‘to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type’ (MacCathy).

The Golden Legend (or Legenda aurea) is a 13th-century collection of saints’ lives compiled by the Italian Dominican Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298). William Caxton, England’s first printer, translated this popular medieval text into English with some editorial changes, such as adding English and Irish saints to the mix. It is Caxton’s text which was newly edited for this Kelmscott Press publication and accompanied by illustrations from Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Morris created three different fonts for his Kelmscott Press. The ‘Golden Type’, which is used here, was based on a type designed by the renowned book printer Nicolas Jenson in the late 15th century. Not only Morris and Burne-Jones were delighted with the product of their labour. A contemporary book review praised it as marking ‘a new epoch in the production of beautiful books in this country’ (The Library).

St John’s copy arrived as part of a larger donation made by Dunstan Skilbeck in memory of his father Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-1954), an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones. It looks, however, as if Clement Oswald was not the first owner of these books. All of them, including The Golden Legend, have bookmarks that, albeit designed by Clement Oswald, name his father John H. Skilbeck as the owner.

You can find out more about St John’s holdings of early private press publications on our special collections website in a blog post based on a talk given at the Oxford Bibliographical Society on 9 December 2021 (


MacCathy, Fiona, “Morris, William”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2009) at [accessed 28/08/2023]The Library v.1 (1892), p. 346

Find the original Book of the Month feature here.

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