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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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:


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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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Mitau copy for sale [SOLD]

On 22 September, 2014, in San Francisco, Bonhams is offering a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer in a quarter-linen binding, slightly worn and soiled. It was formerly owned by Martin and Marjorie Mitau (1900–1973), with “their signed bookplate, bookseller descriptions tipped into the front leaf and paste-down.” Estimated price: $30,000-$50,000.

Martin Mitau (1900–1973) and Marjorie (née Fleishhacker) Mitau (1906–1983) were both San Franciscans and lived in the Bay Area all their lives. He was a member of Roxburghe Club of San Francisco and the Book Club of California, and their collection was strong in California fine printing.

[Update, 29 September 2014.] Sold for $46,250 including premium.

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A portrait of Robert Catterson-Smith

robert catterson-smith Tom Riedlinger has recently sent us a scan of this portrait of Robert Catterson-Smith, a pastel painting by T. Murray Bernard Bladon in about 1920. It was for many years owned by the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Birmingham and is now in the Jenden/Riedlinger Collection.

The original label read: “R. Catterson-Smith M.A. | Principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts 1903–1920 | Director of Art Education for the City from 1911.”

Catterson-Smith, it will be recalled, was the young Birmingham artist hired by Morris to assist in the preparation of Burne-Jones’s illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer. Burne-Jones’s designs were delicately shaded pencil sketches that proved to be unsuitable for the bold, medieval-looking wood-engravings Morris had in mind. Hence his sketches were photographed by Emery Walker’s firm so that Catterson-Smith could trace over them, and then in turn those modified tracings were transferred to woodblocks. There were some complaints at the time because Catterson-Smith’s name was not mentioned in the colophon of the Chaucer; one suspects that Morris was unwilling to acknowledge publicly his heavy reliance on photographic technology.

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William Harcourt Hooper

hooper 2

Tom Riedlinger has very kindly sent us this photograph and brief obituary of W. H. Hooper, who was Morris’s chief wood-engraver; they appeared in the Illustrated London News, 2 March 1912, p. 314. This is the text accompanying the photo:

In the early ‘fifties of the last century the late Mr. William Harcourt Hooper, a wood-engraver of the old school, joined the staff of The Illustrated London News. He afterwards became manager to Joseph Swaine, the engraver for Punch. Mr. Hooper engraved the work of many eminent artists, including Fred. Walker, John Leech, Sir John Tenniel, George du Maurier, Lord Leighton, and Sir John Millais. He also did much engraving work for William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, including the designs for the famous “Chaucer.” These blocks have been presented to the British Museum.

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Private collection, Portland, Oregon

Private collection, Portland, Oregon. Quarter-linen binding.

There are no bookplates or other marks of previous ownership in the book.

Folger Johnson ca 1955Provenance: Judge Folger Johnson (1914–1999), an anti-submarine U.S. Navy pilot during World War II who after law school became a lawyer in the Portland City Attorney’s office. In 1955 he was appointed to the Federal Bankruptcy Court where he served until 1984, retiring as the Chief Judge, United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Oregon. Book collecting was among his many interests; his collection, probably formed between 1941 and 1945,  included several incunabula and examples from many of the great printing presses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The Chaucer remains in the family.

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Morris’s Albion press for sale

Big Albion PressFrederic W. Goudy with Morris’s Albion press.

The celebrated Albion hand press used for printing the Kelmscott Chaucer will be auctioned at Christie’s (New York) on 6 December.

Morris bought the press–which is exceptionally large and reinforced with steel bands—because his printers were experiencing particular difficulty with the large borders in the Chaucer: i.e., the extra pressure required was causing repeated breakdowns on the other presses he then owned. “New press arrived from Hopkinson & Cope,” Sydney Cockerell recorded in his diary on 21 December 1894. But there were immediate mechanical problems with the new press as well. “Please let me know by return when the press will be repaired & ready for work,” Cockerell wrote to Hopkinson & Cope on 1 January 1895. “We expected that it would have been done before this, & have engaged new pressmen accordingly.” Finally, on 8 January, Cockerell was able to write in his diary, “2 presses at work on the Chaucer.”

After the closing of the Kelmscott Press in the spring of 1898, Morris’s presses (not including, of course, the types and ornaments) were sold to C. R. Ashbee, who then rather annoyed Cockerell and F. S. Ellis by proclaiming that he was Morris’s official successor in the world of fine printing. When Ashbee shut down his Essex House Press in 1910, the big Albion was put on the market again again, though the history of its ownership during the following decade is a little murky. It emerges into daylight once more in 1924, now purchased by the American printer and type-designer Frederic W. Goudy, who began using it at his Village Press.

In the late 1960s the press came into the hands of Elizabeth and J. Ben Lieberman, who installed a Liberty Bell on top of the press (he was rather preoccupied with the notion of freedom of the press) and kept it in their living room for four decades. It was, in fact, impossible to walk into the Liebermans’ home (first in White Plains, N.Y., subsequently in New Rochelle) without pulling the bar and printing a memento with one’s name on it. Their son Jethro Lieberman inherited the press in 2001 and is now selling it.

The press will be available for viewing between 30 November and 5 December at Christie’s, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, on 49th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Christie’s estimate is $100,000–$150,000.

[Thanks to the the Briar Press for its useful account of the press’s history (which we have summarized and embellished here) and to Mark Samuels Lasner for calling this to our attention.]

Big Albion Press 2

[Photo by Paul Romaine]

[Update, 7 December 2013]

The press was sold to an undisclosed bidder for $233,000, considerably above the estimate.

The William Morris Society of North America and the Grolier Club sponsored a private view of the press the evening before the auction, at which Jethro Lieberman gave a talk about his family’s connection with Morris’s press.

There was an account of the history and significance of the press in the New York Times.

[Update, 10 December 2013

The Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology has announced on its website that it was the successful bidder for the Morris press, with support from the Brooks Bower family. The press is expected to arrive on the RIT campus within a few weeks, and Stephen Galbraith, curator of the Collection, promises that it “it will have an active life at RIT, not simply as a museum artifact, but as a working press accessible to students, scholars and printers.”

[Thanks to Paul Romaine for letting us know about this announcement.]

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