The Kelmscott Press and the beginning of the Private Press Movement

‘The Romance of Sire Degrevant’, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in 1896

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many artists rediscovered their role as artisan artists and designers, as well as painters and sculptors of fine art. One of the ways that they expressed this was through making printed woodblock illustrations for fine books, printed by Private Presses.

The beginning of the Private Press movement is commonly attributed to William Morris, who in 1890 established the Kelmscott Press. William Morris led what was to become known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its principles were inspired by the writings of John Ruskin who mourned the effects of the industrial age on society and craftsmen. He advocated a return to an age of ‘free’ craftsman. It stood for traditional craftsmanship and simple forms often embellished with interpretations of romantic and medieval decoration including Gothic.

The Kelmscott Press woodcut frontispiece illustrated was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, with whom William Morris worked in partnership on numerous designs, including churches. It depicts a scene from the book of ‘The Romance of Sire Degrevant’. The surround mirrors Morris’s own affection for the patterns of flower and leaf, which he too loved to design. The text is in Chaucer type, in red and black. Morris printed the book on 14th March 1896, a testament to his creative energy, even towards the end of his life. His principles, aesthetics, standards, qualities and techniques are strongly reflected in the Kelmscott Press project. He died on 3rd October 1896.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed at the Kelmscott Press in 1896

The page from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides another example of the decorative themes of the Kelmscott Press.

Technology has transformed the way we consume the printed word. But it is worth remembering that the Private Presses came into being as part of a reaction against the 19th century industrialised age. This was expressed through William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement. Like our spirited, independent local newspapers Private Press books remind us of the pleasure of engaging with the printed word. The smell, touch and sight of books speaks to our senses and delights us in a particular way.

So perhaps the future is in beautifully produced books. Certainly the demand for Antiquarian and Collectors’ books at Toovey’s has remained strong; a growth market for sellers and buyers alike. Tales of the demise of the printed word and the book, it would seem, have been over-exaggerated!

I SAW the spires of Oxford as I was passing by

The Ashmolean Museum’s extension
Rupert Toovey at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Modern Art from the 19th century, a sepia ink sketch by Sir Joseph Noël Paton - 'Study of Christian Resting (From John Bunyan's “Pilgrim's Progress” 1865)'

Last week I once again found myself in Oxford on a grey and blustery morning. Over recent years I have organised an annual conference for professionals from the art and antiques industry. Education has always seemed to me to be the most effective way to raise standards in any field and Oxford has provided the perfect platform.

The 2013 Oxford Art & Antiques Continuing Professional Development Conference saw the launch of new valuation standards, contracts and valuation templates. I wrote them with assistance from Paul Britton in response to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Red Book and Valuer Registration Scheme. The RICS Red Book defines methods of valuation for things as diverse as a building or a Ming vase. The documents we prepared are designed to frame a process which will help to ensure best practice in the working method of UK Chartered Surveyors, Valuers and Auctioneers working in the specialist field of art and antiques. I am delighted that these templates have been broadly adopted by the profession.

However framing and promoting best practice in working method is only part of the mixture of skills for the art professional. Each conference also seeks to explore different specialist fields of objects.

In 2013 Dr Jon Whiteley, the then Senior Assistant Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum’s Western Art department, delivered an outstanding lecture.

He argued that at the beginning of the 19th Century there was a shift of interest from the Old Masters towards a new interest in the work of contemporary artists. In Germany, France and England, the idea of supporting living artists translated into the belief that art itself should be of its own time and should eschew the conventions and handed down ideas then prevalent in the art schools. The belief that art should be if its own time turned into a conviction that it should also represent its own time. Art, like the novel, became a medium for bringing light to bear upon contemporary issues. And yet, nothing comes from nothing. Throughout Europe, the artists who promoted modernity mostly did so by turning back to the art of the past in order to find a model for representing their own times. It was only in the later nineteenth-century that the idea took hold that modern art should be fundamentally different from the art of the past and this led to a kind of modernism that had little in common with modernism in its origin. The talk included artists and schools like Ingres, Courbet, Manet and the Pre-Raphaelites. His views are extremely topical as reassessment of representational art especially from the 18th and 19th centuries is overdue.

As I left by train I was reminded of the words of the poet Winifred M. Letts from ‘The Spires of Oxford (Seen from the Train)’ where, in 1917, she wrote:

‘I SAW the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against a pearl–gray sky.’

The 2014 Oxford Art & Antiques Continuing Professional Development Conference will be based at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and is being supported by the professional bodies, SOFAA and NAVA. Lectures will include how to managing projects by the Revd. Canon Ian Gibson, Worcester Porcelain and the Henry Rissik Marshall Collection by leading the authority on Worcester Dinah Reynolds, and East meets West by Dr Clare Pollard, the Head of the Ashmolean Museum’s Japanese Department. Other sessions will include behind the scenes tours of the Ashmolean’s collections and a visit to William Morris’ Kelmscott Manor. To find out more about Rupert’s work in professional development go to

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 14th May 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.