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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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

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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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Liverpool Cathedral copy

We have learned that the copy of the Chaucer owned by Liverpool Cathedral (2.107 in our Census), formerly deposited in the University of Liverpool Library, was in 2012 moved to Special Collections, the Sheppard-Worlock Library, Liverpool Hope University.

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A new binding for the Terry–Cohn copy

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Bromer Booksellers (Boston) is offering for sale a copy of the Chaucer rebound by Hannah Brown; it was on display at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair earlier this month and is now priced at $125,000.

Brown’s binding (see above) was inspired by a series of embroideries by May Morris and is based on Chaucer’s The Legend of Goode Wimmen, with each woman “represented on the covers by a species of flower or butterfly that bears the same name.” (Brown’s blog discusses her work on the binding in some detail.)

We had listed this as an unlocated copy in our Census (3.189): it was once owned by the Rev. Roderick Terry of Newport, R.I. (see his bookplate below) and later by Saul Cohn of East Orange, N.J. On this blog we have also recorded a recent sale of the book in 2017 (Terry–Cohn copy to be sold).

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