Behold a Digitization of “The Most Beautiful of All Printed Books,” The Kelmscott Chaucer

The his­to­ry of the print­ed book stretch­es back well over a mil­len­ni­um, the title of the old­est known book cur­rent­ly being held by a Tang Dynasty work of the Dia­mond Sutra. But what about the most beau­ti­ful book? As a con­tender for that spot, Michael Good­man (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his projects on the illus­tra­tions of Shake­speare and Dick­ens) has put forth the Kelm­scott Chaucer, includ­ing the tes­ti­mo­ny of no less a lit­er­ary fig­ure than W.B. Yeats, who called it “the most beau­ti­ful of all print­ed books.” Good­man has also made the book freely avail­able for our perusal on his new web site, The Kelm­scott Chaucer Online.

“William Mor­ris, the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry design­er, social reformer and writer, found­ed the Kelm­scott Press towards the end of his life,” says the web site of the British Library. “He want­ed to revive the skills of hand print­ing, which mech­a­niza­tion had destroyed, and restore the qual­i­ty achieved by the pio­neers of print­ing in the 15th cen­tu­ry.”

Pub­lished in 1896, the Kelm­scott Chaucer, ful­ly titled The Works of Geof­frey Chaucer now new­ly imprint­ed, “is the tri­umph of the press. Its 87 wood-cut illus­tra­tions are by Edward Burne-Jones, the cel­e­brat­ed Vic­to­ri­an painter, who was a life-long friend of Mor­ris. The illus­tra­tions were engraved by William Har­court Hoop­er and print­ed in black, with shoul­der and side titles.”

You can view all these ele­ments and more, dig­i­tized in detail and entire­ly down­load­able, on Good­man’s site, orga­nized into sep­a­rate sec­tions ded­i­cat­ed to its illus­tra­tions, full pages, bor­ders, frames, and even its dec­o­rat­ed words — the likes of which we sel­dom, if ever, see in the print­ed books of our own, infi­nite­ly high­er-tech cen­tu­ry. “The edi­tion I have used for this project is a fac­sim­i­le from the 1950s that has sat on my shelf for many years,” Good­man notes. Giv­en how few copies of the Kelm­scott Chaucer were orig­i­nal­ly pro­duced, thir­teen copies on vel­lum, and anoth­er 58 on pig’s skin, “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 dig­i­ti­za­tion due to the sig­nif­i­cant risk of dam­age that the process could inflict upon the book.”

If you’d like a clos­er look at the gen­uine arti­cle, which is much larg­er than the dig­i­ti­za­tion may let on, you can get one in the video just above, host­ed by Lon­don rare book deal­er Adam Dou­glas. “It’s obvi­ous as soon as we open to the begin­ning how much care and atten­tion has been lav­ished on this book,” he says, high­light­ing the “beau­ti­ful designs in the pre-Raphaelite man­ner,” the wood­cut ini­tials through­out (no two of which are alike), and the “won­der­ful pro­por­tions” that match the Gold­en Ratio. It takes a cer­tain sophis­ti­ca­tion, or at least knowl­edge of the his­to­ry of print­ing and book design, to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the Kelm­scott Chaucer. But thanks to Good­man, younger read­ers — even much younger read­ers — can enjoy it in col­or­ing-book form.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Ter­ry Jones, the Late Mon­ty Python Actor, Helped Turn Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales Into a Free App: Explore It Online

Dis­cov­er the First Illus­trat­ed Book Print­ed in Eng­lish, William Caxton’s Mir­ror of the World (1481)

3,000 Illus­tra­tions of Shakespeare’s Com­plete Works from Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, Neat­ly Pre­sent­ed in a New Dig­i­tal Archive

The Charles Dick­ens Illus­trat­ed Gallery: A New Online Col­lec­tion Presents All of the Orig­i­nal Illus­tra­tions from Charles Dick­ens’ Nov­els

Down­load Free Col­or­ing Books from Near­ly 100 Muse­ums & Libraries

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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