Morris & Kelmscott

January 12: William Morris began the Kelmscott Press on this day in 1891, installing three printing presses into a cottage he had rented a few doors down from Kelmscott House, his London home. Given that Morris died five years later, and that his books are ranked as among the most beautifully illustrated and well-made, the Kelmscott Press is regarded as the culmination of his life's work. It was certainly the last in a long and influential list of obsessions and accomplishments, some of which are captured in this one-sentence profile by friend and fellow artist, Edward Burne-Jones:

When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to [G.E.] Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to make wonderful rich-looking books....

In his furniture, textiles, wallpaper, stained glass, and painting, Morris hoped to obey his "golden rule" to "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." The statement became the motto of the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement, a cornerstone in Morris's socialist crusade, and the realized goal of his bookmaking: "I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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