Bodleian MS. Laud Lat. 102, a ninth-century manuscript rebound at the Bodleian Library
Marking International Kelmscott Press Day on Saturday 26 June 2021, Bodleian Special Collections are counting some of the ways that William Morris’s knowledge and love of the book arts has contributed to library collections and expertise, up to the present day. (For more on this topic, join a lecture by Laura Cleaver, co-hosted online by the William Morris Society UK and the Institute of English Studies, University of London, ‘Medieval Manuscripts and Private Presses: William Morris and his Followers as Collectors and Creators of Books c. 1891-1914.’)
Morris’s devotion to book design was a deciding factor in the establishment of the Kelmscott Press, and this History of Reynard the Foxe (1892), reprinted from William Caxton, is one of the editions inspiring the forthcoming exhibition, ‘North Sea Crossings’, which will open at the Weston Library in November. But the influence of Morris is present in less visible ways, too.
Morris’s interest in the crafts of book making also included bookbinding and his work with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and the Doves Bindery, and his designs for the de-luxe binding of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) are well known. Much less well known is the profound influence that his choice of materials would have on future developments in book conservation and the rebinding of medieval parchment manuscripts. Described by Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962) in June 1896 as “a specially-designed binding which has been executed in white pigskin […] inside the skin are oak boards”, the choice of medieval bookbinding materials for the Kelmscott Chaucer was not obvious or entirely approved of by Cobden-Sanderson. Although Morris designed the binding in consultation with Cobden-Sanderson, the work was carried out by Douglas Cockerell (1870-1945) who in turn became the most important binder of his generation. His later conservation and rebinding of the Codex Siniaticus for the British Museum Library in 1935, with oak boards and alum-tawed goatskin, drew upon lessons learnt from the Kelmscott Chaucer and would set the standard for manuscript rebinding and be copied by others for many years. Assisting Cockerell with Codex Siniaticus was Roger Powell (1896-1990), another towering figure in the development of book conservation who would further refine the techniques for rebinding parchment manuscripts with his pioneering work on the Book of Kells for Trinity College, Dublin in 1953 – again bound with oak boards and alum-tawed skins. Powell in turn greatly influenced Chris Clarkson (1938-2017) who worked with him in the late 1960s. Clarkson would later become instrumental in the establishment of the Bodleian’s Conservation Section in the late 1970s and would further refine the techniques of rebinding manuscripts through close observation and appreciation of the structural qualities of surviving medieval bindings. Clarkson trained, encouraged and influenced many book conservators (and many at Bodley) and his approaches continue to be used and developed at the Bodleian today. MS. Laud Lat. 102, a ninth-century manuscript from Fulda, was recently expertly conserved and rebound in oak boards covered with alum-tawed calfskin by Sabina Pugh – the latest in the line reaching back to Morris.
Morris took an active role in the craft of book making. One statement of this commitment was given in the lecture, ‘On the woodcuts of Gothic books,’ available to read online from the William Morris Online Archive,
I cannot help feeling that it would be a good thing for artists who consider designing part of their province (I admit there are very few such artists) to learn the art of wood-engraving, which, up to a certain point, is a far from difficult art; at any rate for those who have the kind of eyes suitable for the work. I do not mean that they should necessarily always cut their own designs, but that they should be able to cut them. They would thus learn what the real capacities of the art are…
Peter Lawrence‘s ‘Engraver’s Gallery’ (2015), featured in a 3D rendition in the digital repository Cabinet, is a recent acquisition to the Rare Books collection which featured in a 2019 display ‘Thinking Inside the Box’. This tiny matchbox work repays close inspection. The cover features Morris in the act of wood-engraving (after the drawing by Edward Burne-Jones), shavings scattering around him, as we imagine, in an homage from one wood-engraver to another.
An engaged interest in the craft of making books as a way to appreciate them better, and to learn about the arts of earlier book designers, is the guiding principle of the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press, where students, schools, and the public can undertake their own experiments to learn ‘the real capacities’ of the arts of printing.
– Andrew Honey and Alex Franklin