11 September 2014

Morris, Books, and the Morgan Library & Museum: A Guest Post by Sheelagh Bevan.

Today, we're honored to have a guest post by the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Curator at the Morgan Library & Museum. Bevan shares with us a description of the Morgan's Morris holdings; some of her favorite items in the collection; and thoughts on Morris's techniques, collaborations, and legacy within the book world.

          I’m part of a three-person curatorial department at the Morgan Library & Museum under the leadership of John Bidwell. Together we take care of 85,000+ volumes of printed books—from Gutenberg’s 42-line bible to the most recent work by artist-typographer Russell Maret. The Morgan’s twin mission (library and museum) requires us to work to some degree with the entire history of print. As Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Curator, I work most closely with the modern end of the spectrum.
         When asked, art historians often cite Edouard Manet as a progenitor of modern art. Such a figure is more difficult to identify in our field because of competing histories of printing, paper, illustration processes, typography, and design—all connected, yet too numerous to neatly coincide. The reach and resonance of William Morris’s bibliographic achievements, his ideas about the book as an everyday object worthy of aesthetic attention, his tendency not to separate the meaning of art from its means of production, and his belief (devoid of metaphor) in the book as a work of art—these qualities make him perhaps the closest equivalent book history has to a Manet.

   The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo by Graham S. Haber
          The Morgan’s collection of William Morris includes preliminary drawings for a tapestry he designed with Edward Burne-Jones, designs for wall paper, stained glass, and bindings, pamphlets connected with the Socialist League, photographs, early literary manuscripts, and experiments with calligraphy. The strength of our collection, however, lies in the documentation of Morris’s ventures into printing, typography, and book design for the Kelmscott Press. These items include formative projects such as Cupid and Psyche, the first pages printed at the press, and presentation copies of major works (many of them printed on vellum) inscribed to key figures in his life and career. Trials, preliminary drawings, and proofs for typography, ornamental initials, and illustrations comprise an archaeological trove pertaining to his masterpiece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896).
Morris is identified with a rejection of mechanical processes but by studying his preparatory work on the Chaucer, one can trace how he achieved this handmade aesthetic with the aid of modern technologies. His type designs developed by studying, tracing, and copying photographic enlargements of fifteenth-century type, examples of which are in the collection. The Morgan’s platinum prints and proof impressions of every Burne-Jones drawing for the Chaucer were annotated by the artist and engraver, then traced and painted over in order to simplify them into wood-engraved images harmonious with Morris’s overall design. Some of my favorite material in the collection bears witness to this unique way of working in holograph statements by his collaborators, Emery Walker and Robert Catterson Smith—oft-quoted documents, worth reading in their entirety. Other favorites are books that serve as miniature archives in themselves, in which Morris or Sydney
   The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo by Graham S. Haber
Cockerell tipped in relevant letters, trials, proofs, and sketches of illustrations and initials. There are also unique scrapbooks of ornaments and initials, which Cockerell annotated and preserved, and the famous Edward Burne-Jones letter to Charles Eliot Norton, which reveals some of the contemporary resistance to Morris’s aesthetic. The original letter, with its dynamic and playful handwriting, amplifies the painter’s excitement about the book he likened to a “pocket cathedral” and explains how his visual style came to be shaped by Morris’s mastery of ornament.
Much of this material is drawn from John Crawford Jr.’s gift of Morrisiana in 1975—the impetus for Paul Needham’s exhibition and invaluable catalogue, William Morris and the Art of the Book. Another invaluable resource for the unique material in our holdings (and everyone else’s) is William S. Peterson’s Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press. In an exhibition I organized earlier this year, Medium as Muse, we were able to feature some of these items and their role in the revival of woodcut illustration and the development of the modern book.
          The collaborative nature of book production is important to emphasize to students. At the Morgan, this is documented vis-à-vis Morris through our extensive printed and manuscript holdings (hundreds of letters alone) relating to his influences and immediate circle—John Ruskin, Emery Walker, Edward Burne-Jones, Sydney Cockerell, Walter Crane, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, May Morris—and other contemporaneous bookmakers, such as Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon, and Lucien Pissarro.
          Contextualizing William Morris also demands a look at the past. Kelmscott editions were among the few “contemporary” books that Pierpont Morgan acquired, but the early presence of Morris at the Morgan is most palpable in the 1902 acquisition of a large part of the artist’s private library of medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early sixteenth-century books. Researchers can look at many of the specific copies and precise pages that inspired him and figured in his writings about the art of printing and illustration. His collection is also thought-provoking in terms of the changing relationships we have to books: he may have begun to collect in the conventional fashion of a 19th-century gentleman-bibliophile, but over time these examples of fine printing became nothing less than a working specimen library for a modern graphic designer—as utilitarian as his copy of Shaw’s Encyclopaedia of Ornament, also in the Morgan’s collection.

          The William Morris material and all our collections can be seen and studied in pre-arranged classes and in the Morgan’s Reading Room by application and appointment. Information on how to register and request an appointment can be found here. The Printed Books Department tries to accommodate special requests for classroom sessions and show-and-tells whenever possible. Please feel free to contact me with any questions related to our holdings and their potential value for students of book history, art, literature, and graphic design.

Sheelagh Bevan
Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Curator
Department of Printed Books & Bindings
The Morgan Library & Museum

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