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Emily Fairchild, Private Press: An Exploration of Medieval Influence in the Private Press Movement

An Exploration of Medieval Influence in the Private Press Movement, by Emily Fairchild
Emily Fairchild was awarded one of Art in Liverpool’s Publication Awards in partnership with Liverpool Hope University. This is her 2021 dissertation study.

List of Illustrations


  1. The Book of Kells, folio 8r, 9th Century
  2. The Book of Kells, folio 57v, 9th Century
  3. The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, 14th Century
  4. The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, 15th Century
  5. Kelmscott Press, News from Nowhere, 1892
  6. Doves Press, The English Bible, 1903-1905
  7. Ashendene Press, The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s, 1902


“No photographic reproduction yet invented has the weight, texture, uneven surface, indented ruling, thickness, smell, the tactile quality and patina of time of an actual medieval book…” (de Hamel, 2016, p.2)

Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten, hand-bound and often hand-decorated in gold, silver or other bright pigments. Many manuscripts date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (V&A, n.d.) but a surprising amount still survive today. Producing manuscripts involved a painstaking process of making parchment, copying the text onto the pages by hand with a quill and then decorating and illuminating the pages with intricate designs and illustrations, in some cases with the careful application of gold leaf.

William Morris set the private press movement in motion during the late 1880s, arriving as an offshoot of the arts and crafts movement which had also originated with Morris among other designers. The idea of the ‘private press’ came with Morris founding the Kelmscott Press in 1891, having been inspired by a lecture given by Emery Walker at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society a few years earlier in 1888. It can be said that Walker’s lecture, focusing on the type in early Venetian printed books (The Emery Walker Foundation, n.d.), contributed to Morris’ venture into creating ‘the ideal book’, which was later described in his 1893 lecture at the Bibliographical Society in London. In the words of Morris (1893): “In fact a book, printed or written, has a tendency to be a beautiful object, and that we of this age should generally produce ugly books, shows, I fear, something like malice prepense – a determination to put our eyes in our pockets wherever we can.” Morris’ views were inspiring to many other artists and designers of the time, a fair amount of them joining in the practice of the private press. A notable few included in this essay are the Ashendene, Roycroft and Doves presses.

My aim in this study is to explore and analyse the use of illustration and decoration in medieval manuscripts and create a discussion on how these elements come together to form what are considered to be quite beautiful books, touching also on typography. I will be considering the influence of the medieval on William Morris’ work, making connections between illuminated manuscripts and private press books, comparing between examples from different presses to evaluate evidence of medieval influence and the effect of personal ideals on design choices.

Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016) contains a brief introduction to illuminated manuscripts followed by twelve case studies. This text has been helpful in identifying possible manuscripts for analysis, for which I have then chosen images to consider in my discussion.

The Getty Museum’s Youtube video, Making Manuscripts (2014), has provided information on the process of making manuscripts, from the parchment to the binding. I have also used The British Library’s video Making Manuscripts: Making Miniatures (2018) to gain further knowledge on the process of decoration and illumination.

Private Presses and Their Books (1929) by Will Ransom has served as a great primary source of information on the movement’s origins and the few presses I have chosen to research and discuss. Ransom created a collection of information on various private presses, published just before the movement started to dwindle due to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The text aims to give a summary of private press history and its influence, while also listing personal and public books produced by private presses (Ransom, 1929). The text has been helpful in furthering my knowledge of the Kelmscott, Doves and Ashendene presses and I have also used its listing of publications to pinpoint books to consider for analysis.

William Morris’ lecture, The Ideal Book (1893), delivered at the Bibliographic Society in London has provided a direct insight into Morris’ views in this area. As he speaks particularly about the use of illustration and typography, I was able to draw from these thoughts and further my exploration of his perception of beauty in books and how craftsmanship may have contributed to this.

To guide my discussion throughout the study, I have implemented formal and contextual analysis of my chosen works and referenced various sources on manuscripts, the private press movement and concepts of beauty. From this, I have been able to take my findings and create a more profound discussion around the effect of Morris’ medieval influence on his Kelmscott Press books and explore the significance of beauty within the movement. In my analysis, I have made comparisons between works, particularly between manuscripts and private press books to note any evidence of influences. I have also included typography and layout as elements to analyse, drawing from my studies in graphic design. This study will be split into two sections, each focusing on medieval manuscripts and the private press. I have used books, articles and video sources to provide context throughout and further my knowledge on the movement and its influences. The primary sources I have gathered have allowed me to gain a closer understanding of the views of prominent figures I have discussed, namely William Morris. I have used other sources to support arguments, provide further context and add depth to my discussion.

In section one, I have discussed illuminated manuscripts and undertaken formal and contextual analysis of pages from three different examples, primarily to gain an understanding of some of the characteristics of manuscripts and how techniques have been employed to create beautiful books in history. I have then briefly discussed aesthetics within these examples, considering my own thoughts and the thoughts of academic librarian Christopher de Hamel.

Section two aims to bridge a connection between manuscripts and private press books through William Morris and his medieval influences. I have again employed visual analysis of pages from private press books, comparing between presses and considering influences how this has affected visual appeal within my chosen examples.

Section One: Illuminated Manuscripts

My aim in this first section is to explore the formal elements of a few examples of medieval manuscripts and begin to gain an understanding of how illustration, decoration and illumination were used in conjunction with lettering to create these beautiful books. I will be looking at examples from three manuscripts – the Book of Kells, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre and the Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Two of these manuscripts are dated between the 14th and 15th century, with the Book of Kells dating back to the 9th century.

The making of manuscripts was a tedious process. It took days for parchment to be made from animal skins by stretching, scraping and drying the skin to achieve a smooth page which could then be cut down to size (Getty Museum, 2014). Though each skin may only yield a few pages, those pages were strong and long-lasting if well kept, and this is shown in the many surviving manuscripts in museum collections today. One of the most famous and oldest surviving manuscripts in the world is The Book of Kells. This manuscript is a richly decoration religious text containing the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (de Hamel, 2016).

Folio 8r of the Book of Kells (fig. 1) is an excellent example of the sheer amount of detail that could be achieved in medieval manuscripts, which would have depended on the type of text, the skill of the artists and the wealth behind it. The composition of this page is for the most part neatly packed into a rectangular shape, with a couple of illustrative elements extending out into the border space. These few pieces of illustration attract the eye and draw the gaze around the exterior border of decoration before you settle upon the text. The scribe would have indented the page with straight lines to act as guides and added the lettering with a quill – a feather which had been hardened at the tip and carved to a particular shape depending on the type of lettering to be used (Getty Museum, 2014) – using inks made from natural pigments.

The lettering used in this manuscript is known as ‘majuscule’, or ‘half-uncial’ due to the characteristics it has retained from uncial script (de Hamel, 2016). The black script is also surrounded by rows of intricately decorated pattern. The colour seems overall to be quite warm, which is aided by the heavy use of gold leaf to illuminate the page, though the warmth is broken up by sections of blue and green which help to define the details in the line work. The dark black ink has only been used for the majuscule lettering and to outline what may be a large decorate initial in the top left corner. Whether this is an initial or not, the use of the black outline at least suggests that this form holds equal or close importance to the lettering in the hierarchy of the page, the decoration being of lower importance in terms of information with a more subtle line weight. This outline helps to draw the eye to the form, or character if so, among the intense decoration. As rightly noted by de Hamel (2016, p.118), many of the pages in this manuscript are “like a marvellously woven oriental carpet”. When a manuscript’s pages were ready to be decorated after the scribe had finished the lettering, the first step for the illuminator would be to draw out the illustrations and apply any silver or gold leaf before painting (Getty Museum, 2014) as can be seen on this folio. Like the scribe’s ink, the paint used for decoration was made from natural pigments and applied with precision (Getty Museum, 2014).

The amount of gold leaf used throughout the pages of manuscripts may be indicative of wealth. It is understandable however that a religious text such as the Book of Kells would be decorated so profusely with gold. The illustrations were often full of detail; even if there was a lack of colour or decoration, the linework could still be very delicate and detailed and I have noticed this especially on folio 57v, which I will shortly return to. It takes quite a close look at each page to really appreciate the detail. On folio 8r, closer inspection reveals a myriad of shapes and patterns crammed into each available space with what must have been incredibly careful precision by the artist, given the size of the page. The Book of Kells’ pages measure around 330 x 255mm, though they had been significantly trimmed during a re-binding in the 19th century and would previously have been quite a bit larger (Trinity College Dublin, 2019). Considering this, regardless of the unfortunate trimming, the area in which decoration has been applied on each page is quite small for the detail it holds, which does add somewhat to the overall grandness of the book.

Folio 57v (fig. 2) is a text page with intricately illustrated and painted capitals which mirror the immense detail of the previously shown folio. The initials are not perfectly formed, the one disadvantage of the amount of white space on this page being that flaws are very easily seen. However, I feel that this adds quite a charm, as do the painted spaces in between certain letters. It is quite a different experience to the previous folio’s ‘woven carpet’ design, Christopher de Hamel (2016, p.121) voices this excellently: “The text pages of the Book of Kells, however, are far finer and more exquisite that I ever expected. The writing, in huge insular majuscule script, is flawless in its regularity and utter control”. I must agree – the short ascender and descender heights of the lettering combined with quite widely set characters create a stable and strong script that flows across the page but still retains elegance, which is reinforced by flourishes (most noticeably in the ‘t’ letterform). De Hamel (2016, p.121) observes here that “It sometimes swells and seems to take breath at the ends of lines.” I think this feeling of movement, perhaps caused by the shapely bowls of many of the letters, brings a certain life to the page that is much easier to appreciate than the striking decoration of folio 8r, which recalls a further thought from de Hamel (2016, p.121):

“…the picture pages interrupt the text and are hard to enjoy, despite all their fame. I am not even sure we can describe them as beautiful. They are spectacularly important in the history of art… but they are confusing and difficult to decipher. Human forms are primitive, even crude. There is too much decoration. The eye has nowhere to settle.”

This is an interesting point – the manuscript may be considered beautiful for the sheer amount of detail applied to its pages however admitting, as de Hamel has, that the beauty of the page is perhaps lost in the effort to achieve extravagance, allows a new perspective. From here, I can begin to understand why William Morris, prominent designer of the late 1800s, took inspiration from medieval manuscripts by picking and choosing elements rather than purely copying styles and techniques. I will expand upon this in my second section. Before this, I would like to briefly explore two other examples of manuscripts to give a broader view of medieval decoration in books.

The first of the two is the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, a Book of Hours measuring around 7 by 5 inches, and a couple of inches thick (de Hamel, 2016). The elements I found most appealing about the folio pictured (fig.3) were the vine border and the decorated initials. “…the so-called ‘ivy-leaf’ border, formed of stems with tendrils of burnished gold trefoils which sparkle as the pages turn” notes de Hamel (2016, p.401), which must have been a much more pleasant experience than leafing through the Books of Kells, as brilliant as it is. It is difficult to imagine that turning one of these pages to be greeted by the glinting leaves would not be beautiful. There is a notable harmony here too between the bryony leaves, as de Hamel (2016) clarifies, and the script, which seems to employ more characteristics of blackletter rather than the rounded half-uncial script shown previously. This is not surprising however, given that there are around 3 to 4 centuries between the creation of this manuscript and the Book of Kells. The lettering almost mimics the angular leaves and meandering vines in its combination of curves and sharp turns. The initials are also decorated and illuminated, elegantly pulling from the border of vines and reaching to join the script. As with the Book of Kells, detail is applied even within the shape of the border and the letterforms of the initials themselves as well as around the initials, which again brings a fuller respect for the craftsmanship of manuscript artists, having so delicately applied the paint into the smallest crevices within features such as initials and miniatures. Miniatures, named for the use of the red pigment minium in the linework, not for their generally small sizes (Lovett, 2018), are perfect examples of an illuminator’s skill for this reason. The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is quite a different example compared to earlier manuscripts and I feel it does have its own beauty in being a book created for royalty.

A similar example to this is the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, shown in fig. 4. On this two-page spread, the excessively flourished look almost like wheat sheafs growing upwards, though for no apparent reason other than extravagance. In saying this, the flourishes are thin enough to not dominate the page and do not interfere with the rest of the decoration. Similar to the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, this Book of Hours has lettering reminiscent of blackletter, which causes a slight contrast between the angular lettering and curved linework in the decoration. The decoration is slightly more appealing in this book than the previous, in having more of a natural feel and not limiting the colour palette to patriotic tones. The colours harmonise a little more here and the pattern is smoother and more elegant. Gold leaf has been applied sparingly – as far as I can tell – to the painted greenery and is mainly given to the initials and the decorative paragraph elements which seem to have been used to preserve the visual flow of the text.

It is evident by looking at pages from illuminated manuscripts that incredible time and care would have been taken to finish each page. A phrase mentioned in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts comes to mind; “…unlike a printed book which mostly rolls off a press in a single process, any manuscript was written over time.” (de Hamel, 2016, p.7). Part of the awe of a medieval manuscript may come from the fact that the skilled hands of multiple craftspeople, over months or likely years, have been dedicated to each for a time, resulting in a book of great quality and beauty. Part of the appeal may also be merely that the commissioner paid copious amounts towards the creation of the book which has resulted in the lavish decoration of highly skilled artists. What is evident is that each could be considered a thing of beauty in their own right.

Section Two: William Morris and the Private Press Movement

The arts and crafts movement emerged in the 1860s with the aim of raising design to the level of art and was driven initially by Morris & Co. (Tate, n.d.). By the 1880’s, Morris had started to extend his love of the medieval towards a need to improve the state of books at that time. The industrial revolution, spanning from around 1760 to 1840, had given rise to new technology and the mass production of many things, including books (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). Morris was apparently unsatisfied with this, having in his mind an ‘ideal book’ that he would begin to strive for by the inception of his Kelmscott Press. In 1888, Morris attended a lecture given by Emery Walker before the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. May Morris, his daughter, is quoted, “…stirred into him an overwhelming desire to hazard the experiment at least. Talking to Emery Walker on the way home from the lecture he said to him, ‘Let’s make a new fount of type.’ And that is the way the Kelmscott Press came into being.” (Ransom, 1929, p.43) This came to form a simple aim for the movement: “…a private press may be defined as the typographic expression of a personal ideal, conceived in freedom and maintained in independence.” (Ransom, 1929, p.22). William Morris’ personal ideal, his ‘ideal book’, was as follows:

“By the ideal book, I suppose we are to understand a book not limited by commercial exigencies of price: we can do what we like with it, according to what its nature, as a book, demands of Art. But we may conclude, I think, that its maker will limit us somewhat; a work on differential calculus, a medical work, a dictionary, a collection of statesmen’s speeches, of a treatise on manures, such books, though they might be handsomely and well printed, would scarcely receive ornament with the same exuberance as a volume of lyrical poems, or a standard classic, or such like.” (Morris, 1893)

Morris wanted to produce books without the need to maximise profits, leaning again towards those values in nature that he had learned years prior from art critic John Ruskin, which had fuelled his work during the arts and crafts movement. This “truth to nature” (Tate, n.d.) is seen quite clearly in the motifs used throughout the Kelmscott editions.

The first thing that is noticeable on this spread from the Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere (fig. 5) is the plentiful illustration. The foliage twists and turns and seems to be of complicated design, however it is still clearly readable and nothing like the mazes of pattern that are presented in the Book of Kells. The design also remains free of the use of many colours that were prominent in the Books of Hours previously analysed in section one, instead only sparsely using red ink, in this case for the chapter titles, which draws the eye in, allowing you to first recognise your place before meandering down the page. The illustration does however replicate the type of floral border design that seems to be common in manuscripts. I think that this approach, though less immediately appealing to the eye than for example the spread from the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, is successful in that the type and illustration are married through this lack of colour and the use of line weight. The pages are framed in a way that does not distract from the written content, complimenting it well. Lecturing before the Bibliographical Society, London, in 1893, on The Ideal Book, Morris stated, “…a book that must have illustrations, more or less utilitarian, should, I think, have no actual ornament at all, because the ornament and the illustration must almost certainly fight.” From this, it is evident that Morris would choose not to apply any ornament to his books, as he felt this would not harmonise well on the page. It is interesting to note here that, “he went a step further and considered a pair of open pages, rather than a single page, as the unit of design.” (Ransom,1929, p.46) – consideration was made not just for the single page but for both pages as one. On the left sits could possibly be a woodblock illustration, given Morris’ love of old techniques. Though there is a large amount of detail in this illustration, quite a bit more than is given to the bordering foliage, the image does not look overcrowded and I think this is owed to the use of a thinner line weight to preserve clarity in the details. Contrastingly, the initials on the opposite page lie quite heavily. Still, there is an elegance in simplicity; the initials are easily readable which I feel is aided by the use of negative space, rather than the same linework that is employed in the borders. These initials are a relief to the eye compared to the complexity of manuscript initials. Another reasoning for Morris’ design choices in his Kelmscott books may be this, commented by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson:

“Morris found beauty in the old manuscripts, in the work of early printers, in all medieval things, but, in being guided by their influence, it was not blindly. He took the beauties and discarded the blemishes. He reverted to many old mechanical methods, not because they were old but because they were the best means of securing certain desired results.” (Ransom, 1929, p.45)

From this, it could be assumed that colour and decoration was not imperative to Morris in creating the ‘ideal book’, though good type design and illustration seem to have been absolutely necessary. It is evident that Morris found great beauty in typography and perhaps held lettering as of equal importance to illustration, which is evidenced in the way he has used these two elements to unify the two-page spread and create something that mass-produced editions of books of the time could not achieve. There is a level of care employed that would not be reached on the production line; even small details like the leaf and flower motifs used as typographical elements on the left, which make quite a charming arrangement of the illustration caption.

Figure 6. The Doves Press, The English Bible, 1903-1905

The Doves Press, founded in 1900, evolved from the Doves Bindery which had been established seven years earlier by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (Emery Walker Trust, n.d.). Cobden-Sanderson partnered with Emery Walker to run the press, “this time in no subordinate advisory capacity but as a full and equal partner” (Ransom, 1929, p.55) – Walker had previously refused partnership in the Kelmscott Press (Emery Walker Trust, n.d.).  The Doves Press edition of the English bible contrasts greatly with Kelmscott books. The most notable page of the Doves Bible is that shown in fig. 6, reading ‘IN THE BEGINNING’ in large Roman-esque red lettering. The type had been designed by Walker, translated from Nicolas Jenson’s Roman type which resulted in what is known as the Doves type (Ransom, 1929). The ‘I’ extends right to the bottom of the text block, encasing the body of the page with its foot. This is an intriguing feature considering how plainly set the rest of the book is. As Ransom (1929, p.56) observes:

“Their peculiarly individual quality is entire absence of decoration. Not a single floret appears; besides the characters of a simple roman alphabet there is only a paragraph mark. True, there are drawn initials occasionally and a marvellously accurate use of red — and such a red — but that is all. And that all is magnificent. The great red initial “I” that dominates and yet fits exactly the opening page of Genesis in the Doves Bible is a pattern for all time of complexity reduced to the minimum of simplicity.”

Again, the ideals embodied by the Doves Press are incredibly different to Morris’. The type is set very plainly, the only real interest of the page being the occasional pilcrow breaking up large blocks of text, and the brilliant red initials. However different this may be to the Kelmscott’s deep-rooted devotion to nature, it is still an ideal that may be considered beautiful in a different sense. There is a certain calm that comes with these pages that you do not get in a Kelmscott book. The point of the movement was indeed to explore typography with freedom; it cannot be denied that this has been done.

The Song of Songs that is Solomon’s is another I will touch on briefly. This edition (fig. 7) was printed by the Ashendene Press, founded in 1895 by friend of Emery Walker, C H St. John Hornby (Cheltenham Museum, n.d.). The 40 copies produce were hand illuminated by painter Florence Kingsford, each with a different design (Southern Methodist University, 2013). The illuminated lettering, gilded with gold, is the element to first catch the eye, this then extending out to the two figures either side of the spread, which have also been illuminated. The text has been printed, leaving large borders for Kingsford’s decoration, which have been filled to the brim with twisting foliage, much like the Books of Hours I examined in section one. In the same vein as the manuscripts shown earlier in the study, the detail is excellent and even more so that 40 of these were made, each with such intricate designs. The foliage used to fill the borders is comparable with the decoration of many illuminated manuscripts, using imagery of nature carefully sketched and painted. This book is visually the closest to medieval manuscripts of the three examples I have considered in this chapter. It is a different expression of medieval influence to Morris’ Kelmscott books and again, a different ideal, a different view of beauty.

I think it is significant that the need was felt by Morris and fellow printers to draw back to history in a time of industrial progression – to strive for beauty in books may seem a little arbitrary when they can be produced more easily and quickly than these private presses made them. However, I think, as there was the with arts and crafts movement, there was perhaps greater meaning in this, though I could not say if it was intended or not.


From my study I have concluded that while the private press movement may not have changed the way we make books, and the production line still plays a role to meet demands, there is still some great importance within the movement. In the long run, books that are printed in a press by hand, decorated with care and also bound by hand will stay a rarity due to the convenience of mass production and computer aided design. However, it is an interesting exploration to undertake, being so close to technology and reading about the ideals of people who were not. It sparks thoughts more on the philosophical side, on our closeness to nature and history, and the effect of this on the art we produce, and even whether we consider art or beauty at all in the making of things. The private press movement has created a pocket in time containing something I would myself consider quite beautiful – the insistence of art in conjunction with functionality that is untouched by the greed we see today from the many companies selling mass produced products. It was an honourable attempt to push against the ugliness of those mass-produced books. Drawing from the medieval period gave this attempt its visual beauty, by expressing possibility through typography, illustration and decoration if it was used. The only downfall is that the movement could not sustain with the arrival of the Great Depression and inevitably the cost of the books it produced. As beautiful as they were, the average person may not be able to afford to buy them, and they would never take over the cheapness and convenience of their opposition.


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