; ; ; 26 May 2017

The Politics of Herbaceous Type

William Morris’s designs of Initials, borders and title pages for the Kelmscott press,
and part of the Print & Drawings Department at the V&A by Guglielmo Rossi

1. Wood engravings. Initial letters for various works issued by the Kelmscott press, engraved by W. H. Hooper from designs by W. Morris. E. 563-566—1921

In printing terms initials are the first letters (bigger in size) of words opening a book chapter or a paragraph. Part of a wide range of typographical conventions, they illustrate the development of ornate letters, starting from forms hand-drawn and coloured by scribes as expression of their skills, they evolved into simplified shapes with the appearance of the printing press. [Fig. 1]

Several sets of alphabets, and ornamental borders were produced by William Morris for the 50 titles published by the Kelmscott press between 1889 and 1896, and a variety of printed proofs, wood engravings and preparatory drawings for single and groups of letters are part of the Print and Drawings Department at the V&A (Prints & Drawings Study Room, level E, case I, shelf 128). [Fig. 2, 3]

2. Original Drawing of letter initials and printed sheet. D. 1561–1907
3. Original Drawing of borders and printed sheet

The work of William Morris as a type designer, book designer, printer and publisher spans across the last ten years of his life, translating into miniature form some of the political ideals and values permeating his work. To the tiniest letter shape detail and at times filling up the whole printing area of a title page, [Fig. 4] borders and alphabets adapt to book form the gothic revival already developed across furniture, textiles, decorative wallpapers and stained glass windows.

4. Two title page designs, outline drawing on the left and on a black background to the right. The left image show the title page design for News from Nowhere (1892). E. 1230–1912

His call to revive traditional crafts translates into designs that are derived from the handwriting of Renaissance scribes, Roman stone cutters, and that imitate a style going back to 16th century Venetian printed books. According to him, and in tune with John Ruskin’s vision that art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour, it is through the rediscovery of the older traditions that the Victorian artist (or craftsman) can finally reunite labour and pleasure.

As a publisher Morris maintained the character of a craftsman-designer with a controlled and cohesive view: hostile to the mechanisation and to the growing speed of the printing process, he was convinced that modern machinery and velocity were leading to a debasement of typographic standards and materials (ink, paper, and binding quality). His initials and borders consist mainly of stylised floral and vine patterns in white line against a black background (though Morris also did a few in outline style), other smaller ornaments creep around and within the text, and overall ‘the pages of the Kelmscott books look as if the letter and the decoration had grown one out of the other.’ [Fig. 5]

5. Initial letters for Kelmscott press publications

In this sense we can look at book and type design as part of his vision of redeeming the ‘world from dreary mechanical ugliness’, mistrusting a reality increasingly shaped by industrialism in the smoky-polluted-crowded Victorian city. Modern typefaces from the 18th century, designed for the mechanical printing press and widely populating printed books at the time, were then symptomatic of this degrade. Faces such as Baskerville, Bodoni and Didot (from England, Italy and France respectively), were described as dazzling and unpleasant to the eye owing to the clumsy thickening and vulgar thinning of the lines. [Fig. 7]

6. Pages from Giambattista Bodoni ‘Manuale tipografico’ (1818)

Influenced by Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornaments (1856), Morris believed that art and good design are based upon principles to be found looking at nature and geometry. According to Jones ‘all ornaments should be based upon a geometrical construction.’ Looking at some of the images here it is possible to notice the pencil lines, the India ink applied with a brush and occasionally corrected with Chinese white. [Fig. 8] The design was subsequently transferred to the surface of the woodblock by photography, and the engraving was done by hand. Becoming more proficient in matching ornaments with text, Morris developed the practice of sketching directly on proof pages, as visible from other images. [Fig. 9, 10]

7. Initial letters for Kelmscott press publications, the drawings show the process followed by Morris in developing the letters before they are turned into wood-blocks. The squares indicate the geometrical construction unit marking the margins of the letter and leaf. The ‘M’, still in pencil, suggests that Morris based the drawing on the shape of the letter and then developed the floral motif around.
8. Original designs for the Kelmscott press, ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1896-7) on the left, and ‘Water of the wondrous isles’ (1897) on the right. The page designs show how Morris drew the ornaments directly on printed proofs, correction marks are visible on both page designs.
9. Borders for Kelmscott press publications ‘Godfrey of Boloyne’, (1893). Blocks cut by W. H. Hooper


William S. Peterson, The Kelmscott Press, a history of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)
Caroline Arscott, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: interlacings (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2008)
Stacey Sloboda, ‘The Grammar of Ornament’: Cosmopolitanism and Reform in British Design, Journal of Design History, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 2008), pp. 223-236
John Kresten Jespersen, Originality and Jones’ ‘The Grammar of Ornament’ of 1856, Journal of Design History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 143-153

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