Students revive William Morris books for lecture, exhibit

April 3, 2013 9:00 AM

Johanna Gretschel

Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover, but William Morris believed that the old librarians’ maxim should not preclude books from achieving an aesthetic beauty. That was a founding principle for Kelmscott Press, which he started in 1891.

1896 woodcut illustration from the Kelmscott Press book on Chaucer.

William Morris’ Kelmscott Press published its famous Chaucer in 1896, including this woodcut portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer composing poetry in a garden. The artwork is by Edward Burne-Jones, Morris’ friend and collaborator at the press. (Photo from Mike Kuczynski)

“He thought books should be both useful and beautiful, sources of information and works of art,” says Tulane English Department chair Michael Kuczynski.

Morris, a true Renaissance man active within the industries of art, writing and textile design during the late 19th century, is the subject of the 24th annual Ferguson Lecture on Thursday (April 4) at 6 p.m. in the Lavin-Bernick Center’s  Kendall Cram Lecture Hall.

English literature graduate students in Kuczynski’s bibliography course curated an exhibit from the Tulane collections in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library to accompany speaker Mark Samuels Lasner, senior research fellow at the University of Delaware Library and past president of the William Morris Society.

Morris is best known today for his ornate wallpaper and fabric designs, but he founded the Kelmscott Press in an effort to revive the lost art of the hand-designed, handmade book.

“Although born to an affluent family, [Morris was] a vigorous socialist, and someone who thought that a return to medieval values in terms of labor could remedy the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized technology over people,” says Kuczynski.

Morris specialized in illuminated manuscripts, in which text is decorated with gold and silver borders and illustrations.

A selection of 13 works published by Kelmscott Press will be on display for the night of the lecture only. Some highlights include a sample page of Chaucer, Thomas More’s Utopia and some medieval works that inspired Morris’ designs.

Morris himself was a large contributor to the foundation of the modern fantasy genre and an influence on Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Needless to say, Morris is one of my heroes,” says Kuczynski.

Johanna Gretschel received a bachelor’s degree with an English major from Tulane in 2012, and she is in the master’s degree program.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu