You might think that all the great unique items from the 19th century literary world would by now be in libraries and museums, not available for public sale. Yet it is amazing what still turns up at the auction houses. For me, that surprise came when I heard that Lewis Carroll’s typewriter was coming up for sale in 2012—but I’ll blog more about that next month. Today I’d like to take a look at an amazing item that sold at Christie’s, New York in December for $233,000 (against an estimate of $100–$150K): The Albion Press that belonged to William Morris and on which he printed his monumental Kelmscott Chaucer.
Fans of my novel The Bookman’s Tale will know a little something about Morris’s version of Chaucer as it plays a role in the story. I wanted to include the book simply because I think it is one of the most beautiful examples of printing ever created. Here is the beginning of Peter and Amanda’s encounter with the book:
It was hard to believe it had been printed less than a hundred years ago. The thick paper; the exquisite foliage design wrapping around the text; the illustrations, so reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts; even the ancient type-face all spoke of a fifteenth-century volume, and of course that was exactly what Morris had intended. The pages were heavy between Peter’s fingers as he gently turned them. Even through the cotton tips of his gloves he could feel the texture of the handset type and the woodblock illustrations.
Morris chose his friend and brilliant painter Edward Burne Jones to create the illustrations for the Chaucer, and that’s another reason I love it‑because I’m a big fan of Burne-Jones’s artwork. I don’t own a copy of the Kelmsoctt Chaucer—of the 438 printed about 5 are on the market at the moment, ranging in price from $75,000 to over $250,000. That’s a lot for a book that falls outside the realm of my collection, not matter how beautiful.
So, I wasn’t tempted personally to bid on the press which had printed this amazing work, but I do think it is remarkable that such things not only survive, but continue to come up for sale. I’m writing this blog in December, just a few days after the sale and the buyer so far has not been announced. But if it was you, I’d love the chance to stop by your place and spend a few minutes with that fabulous machine. And maybe you’ll tell me how much the shipping cost!