Rebinding the Kelmscott Chaucer

Title page from "The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer" (Printed by William Morris, at the Kelmscott Press, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, 1896). One of 425 copies on paper.

“The Ideal Book: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press” will be the new exhibition in the Grosvenor Rare Book Room opening in mid-October 2010.  In preparation for the exhibit, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Now Newly Imprinted [Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896.] was recently repaired.

The Kelmscott Chaucer, as it is more commonly known, is still regarded by many as the most important and beautiful of all the private press books that have appeared since 1891 (the year William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press).  The Rare Book Room copy of the Chaucer was acquired by the late Phillip J. Wickser of Buffalo in the 1940s and presented to this library by his children – Mr. John P. Wickser, Mrs. Melissa Banta and Robert L. Wickser – in 1976.

Most copies of the Chaucer were issued in the usual Kelmscott quarter holland binding (blue paper covered boards with a tan linen spine) which Morris called “a satisfactory temporary binding.”  There were also special designs created by Morris, including a pigskin binding carried out at the Doves Bindery, along with 2 additional pigskin designs bound at J. & J. Leighton.

In the past, the Rare Book Room copy of the Chaucer had its spine strengthened and rebacked (re-covered) in cloth which looked similar to the original tan linen spine.  However, the book was again in need of repair as the spine was separating, all of the original tapes were broken and a number of signatures were in need of mending.

Enter Fred Jordan.  Mr. Jordan, once a student of English bookbinder and scholar Bernard C. Middleton, carried out the necessary repairs and executed a new, full leather binding on the Rare Book Room copy of Chaucer.

David Pankow, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, graciously supplied four sheets of Hammer and Anvil paper to be used as endpapers; the same paper that T. J. Cobden-Sanderson used at the Doves Bindery.

Chaucer awaiting a new full leather binding

Here is a list from Mr. Jordan of the treatment the Chaucer received:

  1. Book was disbound, saving the original endpapers.
  2. The necessary mending was done.
  3. The book was sewn on double linen cords using linen thread.
  4. After rounding, the end bands were hand sewn and the boards attached by lacing the cords through the boards.
  5. Book was then covered with leather and tooling was designed and applied.
  6. A box was constructed to house the book.

Newly rebound Kelmscott Chaucer.

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