Searching for a famous book

First wood-engraving by Burne-Jones

We are the authors of The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census, published by Oak Knoll Press in April 2011. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, issued by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896, is probably the most famous of all private press books, set in types, ornaments, and initials designed by Morris and lavishly illustrated by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. There were 425 copies printed on paper and 15 on vellum. Our Census is an attempt to trace as many as possible of those copies, to describe them thoroughly (including bindings), and to summarize the history of ownership of each. In our book we succeeded in locating approximately two-thirds of the pressrun of the Chaucer, but we know that many copies have eluded us. The Kelmscott Chaucer continues to appear from time to time in auction rooms and in dealers’ catalogues, and we have no doubt that the publication of our Census will have the effect of bringing even more out into the open. We decided that we needed some medium to record this new information as it came to light; this blog, therefore, is an effort to keep our book up to date. We envision several kinds of posts. When we locate new copies of the Chaucer, we will eventually describe them in the same format we used in the Census; but in the meantime, before all the information is available, we will offer brief “preliminary notes” about what we know so far. In other cases, when we learn about copies being offered for sale, we will write short posts about them; later, when more details emerge (such as the price realized or the name of the purchaser), we will report those facts as well. It is possible also that occasionally we may write posts not related to specific copies of the Chaucer but rather based on some experiences or reflections that grew out of our pursuit of this celebrated book. We welcome additions and corrections to our Census; please write us at

(And keep in mind that we also have another website devoted to the library of William Morris.)

— William S. Peterson & Sylvia Holton Peterson    

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Potter & Potter auction

A copy of the Chaucer will appear in a Potter & Potter auction (Chicago) on 16 February 2023 (lot 328). Minimum bid is $50,000; estimate is $100,00–$125,000. “. . . with printed notice by Morris tipped to rear pastedown (a little spotting at top margin at the beginning). Original blue holland–backed boards, printed spine label (some splitting along joints, heal partially repaired, few tiny chips to label, corners gently rubbed); custom folding box gilt (light edgewear).” An inscription on the box describes it as “the finest printed book since the Gutenberg Bible.”

The catalogue description offers no information about previous owners.

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Basilisk facsimile

Maggs copy of Basilisk facsimile

In the Maggs Bros. catalogue for London’s Rare Book Fair (October 2021) is a copy of the Basilisk Press facsimile (1974) of the Chaucer with an interesting provenance: “This copy was presented by Charlene Garry, the founder of the Basilisk Press, to the printer of the edition, Bernard Roberts of the John Roberts Press.” A later facsimile by the Folio Society (2002) was created from this copy.

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Copy for sale by Maggs

Maggs pigskin 2021

A copy of the Chaucer in the Doves pigskin binding (1896) was offered for sale by Maggs Bros. in October 2021 for £295,000. “In a contemporary green linen chemise with titles and a border of foliage and white roses hand embroidered on the upper panel. Housed in a blue cloth folding case.”

There are no marks of previous ownership.

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Copy now in the Victoria and Albert Museum

A copy of the Chaucer (Census 2.190) once owned by Clarence Dillon and later in the possession of Paul Chrzanowski (Livermore, California), has returned to England. Through the generosity of  Mr. Chrzanowski, it was donated in 2016 to the American Friends of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in 2020 it became a part of the permanent collection of the National Art Library at the V & A.

While the book was still in California, it was rebound by Dominic Riley (see this earlier post on our blog).

In 2009 Mr. Chrzanowski gave his substantial collection of early English books to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.

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Percy Wyndham copy


In 2016 we recorded the sale by Lyon and Turnbull of a quarter-linen copy of the Chaucer once owned by Percy Scawen Wyndham and later by his son Guy and W. R. Wilson. This copy is now being offered again by Maggs Bros., which has supplied a few more details about the binding (see above): “Original publisher’s Holland backed blue paper boards with a removable chemise constructed by James and Stuart Brockman using original Morris & Co. cotton fabric block printed in blue and tan with the ‘Tulip’ pattern, designed and registered by William Morris in 1875 and printed by Thomas Wardle in Leek, Staffordshire.”

The price is £75,000; stock code is 231873.

(Thanks to Mark Samuels Lasner for calling this to our attention.)

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The Leighton ledgers

Some years ago, while searching for information about the Kelmscott Chaucer, we went through the ledgers of John and James Leighton Ltd. (London bookbinders and booksellers) to record copies of the book that had been bound by that firm. There are nine volumes of the ledgers in the British Library (Add. MSS. 45161–45169), covering the years 1897–1918. We examined the first six volumes (45161–45166, though we found nothing in 45164) but decided not to slog through the remaining three volumes because Leighton was doing far less work on Kelmscott Press books during those years.

While looking over our notes recently, we decided that it might be useful if we were to publish this information here. We have tidied up the notes just slightly, but for the most part this is simply the raw information as we recorded it, with no later alterations. It will be seen that the ledgers contain information about both copies of the Chaucer that were later listed in our Census and copies that are still not identified or located.

Add. MS. 45161 (ledger, 1897–98)

(fol. 4) 5 March 1897 — miscellaneous — Rimell & Co., 91 Oxford Street — Kelmscott Chaucer — £27/10 — Paid 3.4.97

(fol. 43) August 1898 — W. S. Blunt, Esq., Newbuildings Place, Southwater — Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Kelmscott) —l. fol. vellum limp, silk strings, rough gilt edge — £1/15/-
(fol. 67) 20 January 1897 — S. C. Cockerell, Esq., 17 Rosemont Rd., Richmond — Chaucer. Kelmscott — fol. —1/2 holland — £11/6.

(fol. 75) 22 January 1898 — Mr. C. H. Cattle, 2 East Circus St., Nottingham — Kelmscott Chaucer — £28/-/-. Paid 25th January 1898.

(fol. 89) 5 June 1897 — F. S. Ellis, Esq., The Red House, Cockington, Torquay — Cuts from Chaucer mounted on paper with a frame of paper & piece cut out for verses — binding in half pigskin oak boards g[ilt] [illegible word] blind tooled to order — £4/-4/-.

(fol. 123) 3 March 1897 — A. Higgins, Esq., 16 King St., Portman S.q. — Kelmscott Chaucer — 1/2 pigskin oak boards — £4/-/-.

(fol. 123) May 1897 — A. Higgins — Case for Chaucer lined swansdown double [illegible word] hollow steel stops [?] covered washed leather — £1/11.

(fol. 140) 4 May 1897 — Kelmscott Press, Upper Mall, Hammersmith — Chaucer sent to Scheltema & Holkema, Amsterdam — £5/-.

(fol. 140) 21 May 1897 — Kelmscott Press — Kelmscott Chaucer on Vellum waste sheets made up in 2 vols half holland, some slight cleaning up & repairs — £1/12/-, £1/-/-.

(fol. 159) 29 November 1897 — C. Fairfax Murray, Esq. — Kelmscott Chaucer on vellum whole green Mor[occo] oak boards [illegible words] back & sides — £6/-/-.

(fol. 167) 27 Apr. 1897 — Messrs. Morris & Co., 449 Oxford St. — Kelmscott Chaucer — £30/-/-.

(fol. 219) 19 February 1897 — Robert Steele Esq., Chemical Society’s Library, Burlington House — Kelmscott Chaucer — 1/2 holland — £13/6 —paid 5.8.97.

(fol. 220) 26 March 1897 — Scheltema & Holkema, 74 Rokin Hoek Wijde Kapelsteeg, Amsterdam — Chaucer Kelmscott — £28/-/- — Paid 4 May 1897.

(fol. 260) 28 November 1898 — E. R. B. Hall Watt, Esq., Bishop Burton, Beverley — Kelmscott Chaucer — £40/-/- — Paid 5.XII.98.

Add. MS. 45162 (ledger 1899–1900)

(fol. 31) 26 September 1899 — Bickers & Son, 1 Leicester Square, London — Kelmscott Chaucer — £56/-/-.

(fol. 32) 29 May 1899 — James Bain, 1 Haymarket, SW — Kelmscott Chaucer — £59/-/-. Paid 8.6.99.

(fol. 46) February 1900 — J. & E. Bumpus, 350 Oxford St., W. — Kelmscott Chaucer — £64/-/-. Paid 3.3.00.

(fol. 49) 11 February 1899 — C. Belcher, Esq., 26 Oaklands Grove, Uxbridge Rd., W. — £44/-/-. Paid 14.1.99.

(fol. 130) 1 June 1899 — Sydney Humphreys, Esq., 3 Whitehall Court, S.W. — Kelmscott Chaucer in qrs untrimmed — £65/-/-.

(fol. 167) 16 May 1899 — Morris & Co., 449 Oxford St., W. — Kelmscott Chaucer — £57/10/-.

(fol. 167) 26 March 1900 — Morris & Co. — Kelmscott Chaucer leaf — vellum folio — 1/2 holland — 12/6.

(fol. 167) 7 August 1899 — Mrs. Morris, Kelmscott Manor, Lechlade — 1 Chaucer, folded, mended & bound 1/2 holland — 18/-.

(fol. 167) 8 September 1899 — Mrs. Morris — 1 Chaucer, folded, mended & bound 1/2 holland — 18/-.

(fol. 228) 23 March 1899 — Robert Steele, Esq., Chemical Society’s Library, Burlington House — Kelmscott Chaucer rebound (not to be charged).

(fol. 243) 13 Nov. 1899 — J. & M. L. Tregaskis, 232 High Holborn, W.C. — Kelmscott Chaucer & Sigurd — cash £77/-/-. Paid cash 14.9.99.

Add. MS. 45163 (ledger 1901–02)

(fol. 59/81) 27 March 1901 — S. C. Cockerell, Esq., 16 Clifford’s Inn — Kelmscott Chaucer — Auto. presentation copy — £86/-/-.

(fol. 70/93) 9 April 1902 — Cornish Bros., 37 New St., Birmingham — Kelmscott Chaucer — £140/-/-. Paid 26.5.02.

(fol. 87/112) 23 August 1902 — Denham — Chaucer 6 vols. Used by W. Morris for Kelmscott ed. — £10/-/-. [This is The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. W. W. Skeat (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), used as the copytext for the Kelmscott Chaucer. Morris’s marked-up copy is now in the Beinecke Library.]

(fol. 96/120) 10 January 1902 — Frederick Evans, Esq., Takeleys, Epping Uplands, Epping — Kelmscott Press. 58 vols. 1/2 holland (6 fol; 17 4to; 35 8vo. — £4/7/0. Box and packing of above, 1/9. Paid 28 July 1902.

(fol. 132/150) 6 March 1902 — Frank Hollings, 7 Gt. Turnstile, W.C. — Kelmscott Chaucer folio 1/2 holland, paper label lettered in black, paper added — £15/-/-. Paid 7.4.02.

(fol. 132/150) 13 June 1902 — Frank Hollings — Chaucer leaves — 1/2 holl. paper added, lettered as before — £15/-/-. Paid 7 Aug. 1902.

Add. MS. 5165 (ledger 1905-06)

(fol. 94/87) 24 February 1905 — Francis Edwards, 83 High St., Marylebone — Kelmscott Chaucer, case made and lettered, lined swansdown — 17/6.

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A Chaucer leaf book


Phillip J. Pirages (fine book and manuscript dealer, McMinnville, Oregon) has recently published a Chaucer leaf book entitled Letters from the 15th Century: On the Origins of the Kelmscott Chaucer Typeface: “This unique leaf book combines three elements – a significant private press production, a substantial scholarly commentary [by Pirages] that contributes to a further understanding of printing history, and a collection of five leaves: one from the Kelmscott Press ‘Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’ and four from books issued by German printers Morris most admired.” The other printers represented are Peter Schoeffer, Johann Mentelin, Günther Zainer, and Anton Koberger.

Prices range between $1,950 and $6,500, depending on the binding and leaves. More details are available on the Pirages website, which also provides a link to a video by Pirages about the book.

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Copy for sale in Japan

The Spring, 2020 issue of the Book Collector (p. 131) reports that a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer in a Doves pigskin binding (1896) was offered for sale by Kagero Bunko at the Kanda Antiquarian Book Fair, Tokyo, October 2019, for £66,330. The binding was said to have been dyed light brown and displayed signs of wear.

A recent owner of the book was Sensui Shoji (1903–1991).

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Lost & Found

We’ve just learned that in 2018 John Windle (antiquarian book dealer, San Francisco) published a booklet entitled Lost & Found: Unpublished Articles on Morris and the Kelmscott Chaucer: “Limited to 45 copies for sale (80 copies were reserved for private distribution to the Roxburghe and Zamorano Clubs) printed by Li Jiang at the Lemoncheese Press. The text consists of a hitherto unpublished article by Denys Sutton, being his review of the Pierpont Morgan Library exhibition ‘William Morris and the Art of the Book’; an analysis of the blocks used for printing the Kelmscott Chaucer by John Dreyfus; and a transcript of information from Herbert G. Smart on the technique of electrotyping.”

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Grinnell College Library copy

The copy of the Chaucer once owned by the Salisbury House Foundation, Des Moines, Iowa (Census 2.212) has been purchased by Grinnell College Library.

Mark Samuels Lasner recently sent us a copy of a letter from Philip C. Duschnes to Carl Weeks (a former owner), 6 August, 1954, indicating that Weeks paid $1,600 for it — though Duschnes allowed him $650 credit for returning another copy that Weeks had purchased from Duschnes earlier. The more expensive copy that Weeks purchased (on 3 November 1944) had a Doves binding and four pasted-in signatures (including Morris and Burne-Jones).

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