A Masterpiece of Literature, Art, and Print Design

CHAUCER (GEOFFREY) The Works, ONE OF 425 COPIES, Hammersmith, Kelmscott Press, 1896. Image: Bonhams.

The Canterbury Tales

Like many classics of world literature, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has appeared in many guises over the centuries. It has been filmed several times, most memorably by the Italian film director Pier Paulo Pasolini who cast himself in the plum role of Chaucer, and most recently was reimagined with modern characters by the BBC. But the most beautiful and cherished version of these evergreen stories is probably that produced by the Kelmscott Press 125 years ago. A copy of this edition was sold at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscript sale in London on Wednesday 31 March for £ 100,250, more than doubling the estimated price of £35,000-45,000.

Published in 1896 with 87 wood-engraved illustrations by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, the Kelmscott Press’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer now Newly Imprinted has long been regarded as the imprint’s masterpiece. The copy in the sale, one of 425 edited by F.S. Ellis and W.W. Skeat, is finely bound by Paul Claessens (1861-1909), best known for twelve bindings he executed from the designs of Henry Van de Velde, with whom he worked in close partnership.

Today, William Morris is probably most famously remembered for his exquisite wallpaper designs. Acanthus wallpaper design, 1875. Image: Bonhams.

William Morris and the Kelmscott Press

The Kelmscott Press was founded by William Morris in Hammersmith, London in 1891. In keeping with his usual practice of going back to basics, Morris, a textile designer, social activist and major influence on the British Arts and Crafts Movement, took his inspiration from the earliest known examples of printed books dating from before 1501. He adapted the type developed by Nicholas Jensen in Venice in the 1470s and used handmade paper – as close as possible to 15th century Italian paper – made by a paper-mill in Kent.

The Canterbury Tales took four years to produce, Morris working tirelessly on this, his last great project, with his old friend Edward Burne-Jones. The book was completed months before Morris died in October 1896.





Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Visit Bonhams online.

See more auction results from Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscript Sale on Wednesday 31 March 2021.

You can read The Canterbury Tales online on the University of Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, we’ve summarized the most important aspects of The Canterbury Tales for you in the MoneyMuseum’s archive.

There is even an App for The Canterbury Tales, which we’ve featured it in this Bookophile Article.

Check out the extensive collection of William Morris’ works at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Learn more about the Kelmscott Press at the Cleveland Museum of Art.