(Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896). Folio. (556)pp. One of 425 copies. Contains 87 wood-engraved illustrations designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. William Morris, in addition to the "Chaucer" type designed expressly for this book, provided 26 nineteen-line initials, and numerous foliate and floral borders and initials. Burne-Jones called the book "a pocket cathedral-it is so full of design," and "the finest book ever printed; if W.M. had done nothing else it would be enough." The most ambitious and magnificent book of the Press, it was four years in the making. Morris designed the watermark for the paper, which was copied from an Italian incunable in Morris' collection and made entirely of linen by Batchelor. It took several requests before the Clarendon Press granted permission to use Walter William Skeat's new edition of Chaucer. Burne-Jones devoted all his Sundays for almost three years to the work, and Morris came to talk with him as he drew. As the artist worked, he increased the number of proposed illustrations from 48 to 60 to 72 to 87, and Morris accepted each change. The process of adapting the drawings to the woodblock and engraving them was entrusted to W. H. Hooper and R. Catterson-Smith, with Burne-Jones closely supervising every detail. Of these meltingly lovely pictures, those for "The Canterbury Tales," "Romaunt of the Rose," "Troilus and Criseyde," and "The Legend of Goode Wimmen" are better known than those for Chaucer's translation of Boethius, his "ABC" prayer to the Virgin, "The Parlement of Foules," "A Treatise on the Astrolabe," and the surrealistic "House of Fame." All are equally beautiful, and all contain images which appear in his paintings.
This copy features an exquisite designer binding by Hannah Brown. Brown's design is based on "The Legend of Goode Wimmen", which tells the stories of ten virtuous women: Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra. Each woman is represented on the covers by a species of flower or butterfly that bears the same name, and they are worked into a bold, large-scale design that is mirrored on the back cover. The floral pattern dovetails nicely with the aesthetic of William Morris, but the technique Brown employs here also continues in the tradition of Morris's daughter, May, who is known for her intricate embroidery. May Morris was an exceptional artisan in her own right, learning different crafts and approaches to design from her father and at the National Art Training School. She took over management of Morris & Co.'s embroidery department when she was just 23, and her work was highly sought after. The catalogue of a recent Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition of May Morris's work notes, "Her designs were so accomplished because she had a deep knowledge of embroidery technique, combined with artistic ability and training."
Similarly, Hannah Brown trained in a number of three-dimensional crafts, including woodworking, metalworking, and textiles, along with bookbinding. All of these materials and techniques are utilized in the execution of this binding. The design is built up with a variety of very thinly-pared colored leather onlays. The onlays were meticulously embroidered using colored and metallic threads, both before and after adhering them to the base leather. A range of embroidery stitches have been used across the cover, including French knots, running stitches, back stitches, couching, and whipped stitches. Brown applied further detail with tooling, circular onlays, and the addition of gold-plated brass elements forming the anthers of bright pink and purple fuchsias. Vining embroidered gold foil leaves twist down the doublures and are entwined with the names of the "Goode Wimmen," formed from circular leather onlays in the colors of their corresponding flowers or butterflies. The whole is housed in a solid oak box, hinged with two fore-edge clasps, and with a matching leather title label running vertically down the front. The book is nestled in burgundy felt with chartreuse leather lining the edges of the box, which is again decorated with the names of the central women.
Every feature of this book is exemplary. The combination of ornate and flourished artwork and typography of the interior become even richer paired with Brown's binding. Item #27786
(Peterson A40; The Artist & the Book 45; May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer, p. 61).