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UBC acquires rare hand-printed Victorian Chaucer volume

The poet William Butler Yeats called it "the most beautiful of all printed books" — and now, UBC has a copy of its very own.

'The Kelmscott Chaucer,' as its known, gives unique insight into printing technologies old and new

UBC's Gregory Mackie and Katherine Kalsbeek show off their library's latest acquisition: a rare, hand-printed collection of the works of Chaucer. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

The poet William Butler Yeats called it "the most beautiful of all printed books" — and now, UBC has a copy of its very own.

The university has just acquired a lavish leatherbound copy of The Works of Chaucer, published in 1896 by William Morris' Kelmscott Press in England.

The volume contains the complete works of the landmark Middle English author, decorated with ornate lettering and illustrations, designed by Morris and printed using a combination of both ancient and Victorian printmaking techniques.

"There's intertwining organic vines and leaves, and he's got these elaborate decorated borders on every single page," said Gregory Mackie, assistant professor in UBC's English department.

At about 30 by 43 centimetres in length, Mackie said its size and detail makes it striking to behold in real life.

"It's a really spectacular work of art."

Printed in 1896, The Works of Chaucer was made using a mix of old and then-new technology. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

The original 'collector's edition'

Only 438 copies of The Works of Chaucer were ever printed, and only 48 were made with the leather binding — making this particular edition especially rare, even when it was first published.

"This book was never really available for sale to the public," said Katherine Kalsbeek, head of UBC's rare books and special collections department. "Even back in 1896, it was regarded as a very special book that only certain people were able to afford or acquire."

The Works of Chaucer is one of only a few books to have had a census taken of all produced copies, meaning researchers can track the original ownership of every copy ever produced. UBC is the fifth owner of this particular copy, acquiring it from Heritage Booksellers in Los Angeles for $202,000 USD.

Kalsbeek said that makes it one of the most valuable single items in the university's rare books collection, alongside its copy of the second Shakespeare folio.

William Morris designed the entire book, including the borders and initial capitals. Some of it was printed in red ink, which would have required a second pass through the hand-operated press. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

An insight into Victorian book production

Morris, who designed and published the book, was known mostly as a designer of textiles, wallpaper and stained glass. He was a key figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century.

Later in his life, Morris established the Kelmscott Press. He was interested in reviving old technologies he felt were being lost to the increasing mechanization of the Industrial Revolution.

"He singlehandedly tried to revive hand-press printing," Mackie said. "He actually had a special [hand-operated] printing press made for the books that he published and designed at the Kelmscott Press."

The Works of Chaucer was produced with a combination of technologies spanning multiple eras of bookmaking. Morris chose a Gothic typeface to give the book a medieval look, but the type itself was machine-cast.

The book's leather binding is decorated in a style Morris became known for as a textile designer. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

The borders, illustrations and initial capitals were printed using wood blocks, but the illustrations were transferred to the wood using photography.

In other words, Mackie said, Morris used some of the most advanced technology available to make a distinctly "retro"-looking book.

UBC's copy of the book includes a number of proof sheets, which give insight into the various stages of the book's production.

"It's as if you can sort of virtually take it apart and reconstruct how the printing press operated — how the [printing company] itself put the book together," Mackie said.

The book includes detailed illustrations on "almost every page," Mackie said. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

The book is available for public viewing at UBC's rare books collection at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.