Week 97: William Morris and Exeter College

This week we reveal some things in Exeter’s Special Collections from the Victorian socialist, designer, and writer, William Morris.

William Morris (1834-1896) is probably best known for his wallpaper nowadays, but throughout his life he proved to be a keen bibliophile. As a student at Exeter College (1852-54) Morris began to bind books, including Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’ and Ruskin’s ‘Lectures on Architecture and Painting’, which were donated to the College by his daughter in 1939.

John Ruskin's Lectures on architecture and painting bound by William Morris

John Ruskin’s Lectures on architecture and painting bound by William Morris


Later,  Morris set up a printing house, the Kelmscott Press. In 1895 he wrote, ‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.’

The Kelmscott Press produced books to standards of medieval craftsmanship, of the highest quality, and of exceptional beauty. The paper was handmade, ‘wholly of linen’ ‘laid’ not ‘wove’, the fonts Gothic and Roman, the dyes made from historic recipes.

Kelmscott label


The Library has several Kelmscott Press books including  Sidonia the Sorceress by William Meinhold and translated by Speranza, Lady Wilde, and The History of Godefrey of Boloyne and of the conquest of Jerusalem (reprinted from Caxton’s translation), and two copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one (the first off the press) which belonged to Morris himself and the second which belonged to Edward Burne-Jones.

The jewel in the crown of the Kelmscott Press, the great  ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ took four years to produce, and is illustrated by Burne-Jones, Morris’ contemporary at Exeter. He said ‘If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.’  Burne-Jones words were prescient – Morris died shortly after the first copies were printed, in 1896.


Kelmscott Chaucer (1896)

Kelmscott Chaucer (1896)


The Special Collections also hold other Morris artefacts, the contents of Morris’ desk at the time of his death, including his spectacles, paint brushes (some nibbled), cigarette holder, and a lock of his hair.

Lid of box containing lock of William Morris' hair

Lid of box containing lock of William Morris’ hair


In the College chapel you can see the tapestry, The Adoration of the Magi, designed by Burne-Jones, and commissioned from William Morris and Co, to adorn the new Chapel in the 19th century.


Adoration of the Magi (1886)

Adoration of the Magi (1886)


Morris items from Exeter’s Special Collections can be seen at Modern Art Oxford, in the exhibition Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol’, curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, until 8th March 2015.




 Thomas Wilson

(History m.2013)

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