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 swholton2@cs.com. (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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Lyon and Turnbull: copy sold

Lyon and Turnbull, (Edinburgh) sold a quarter-linen copy of the Chaucer on 10 September 2014 for £33,650. The book was originally purchased by Percy Scawen Wyndham. In a note on the front endpaper he writes, “This book is left to my son Guy — Percy Wyndham, July 1896.” In another hand: “This was sold in April 1942 by Basil Blackwell to W. R. Wilson of Rudge Hall for £148.”

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Leon Fine copy

We have learned that Dr. Leon Fine of Los Angeles, a new member of the Grolier Club, owns a Kelmscott Chaucer (3.103 and 4.748 in our census). This is a quarter-linen copy originally purchased by George James Howard, ninth Earl of Carlisle (1843–1911), of Castle Howard, Yorkshire, an aristocratic artist who was on very friendly terms with both Burne-Jones and Morris.

Howard left the book to his daughter, Lady Dorothy Howard/Henley (who died in 1968), and her inscription appears on the front pastedown. The book remained in the family until it was sold to Dr. Fine by Simon Finch (London) in 2002.

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Peter Harrington: copy for sale

Peter Harrington (London) is offering a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer for £68,500. The book is bound in “20th century blue morocco over bevelled boards by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, gilt panelled spine (gilt tooled on the raised bands with a fleur-de-lis motif), single-line gilt border on sides three-line gilt turn ins. Housed in a morocco trimmed blue cloth, fleece lined slipcase.” There are no bookplates, signatures, or other marks of ownership.

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Pirages: copy for sale

Philip J. Pirages (McMinnville, Oregon) is offering for sale a quarter-linen copy in excellent condition ($95,000). There are no bookplates, signatures, or other marks of ownership.

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Norfolk County Library copy sold

Bloomsbury Auctions recently (17 March 2016, lot 1010) sold an ex-library copy from the Norfolk County Library for £24,000. It was a quarter-linen showing some signs of wear.

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Three copies for sale in one month

By coincidence, three copies of the Chaucer are coming up for sale next month (December 2015).

(1) Swann, on 1 December (lot 140), will be offering a quarter-linen copy in a modern clamshell case, with an estimate of $45,000–$60,000. The spine label and the binding show some signs of wear. (For an earlier sale of the book, see this post.)

[Update, 5 December 2015.] The book sold for $62, 500 (including buyer’s premium). Here is a link to the online catalogue. And we apologize for the wrong date in our original post: the auction was on 24 November 2015, not 1 December.

(2) Christie’s (New York), in its 8 December auction (lot 226), will sell another copy, this in a blue morocco binding by Sangorski & Sutcliffe with a cloth slipcase. The estimate is $4o,000–$60,000. (We listed this in our Census, 3.228, under unlocated copies.)

[Update, 9 December 2015.] This copy sold for $50,000.

(3) The most spectacular of the three copies is the one included in Sotheby’s (London) sale of 15 December, lot 82, inscribed by Morris “to R. Catterson Smith from William Morris July 7th 1896.” There are only a few copies of the Chaucer signed by Morris, who died a few months after its publication, and what lends importance to this particular inscription is that Robert Catterson-Smith was heavily involved in the production of the book: he revised Burne-Jones’s designs before they were handed over to the engraver. (On Catterson-Smith, see also this post and this one.) The pre-auction estimate is £100,000–£200,000. The binding is quarter-linen with a loose-fitting Morris fabric covering, reproduced below:

Image

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Copy for sale: Bloomsbury Auctions [SOLD]

Bloomsbury Auctions (London) will offer a copy of the Chaucer on 23 October 2014, lot 147 (estimate price: £15,000–20,000). It is described as a worn and loose quarter-linen binding but internally fine.


[Update, 13 November 2014.] Sold for £23,560 including premium.

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