The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid was written by Oliver Byrne, who was a surveyor of Crown Lands in the Falkland Islands and a mathematician. It was published in 1847 by William Pickering and printed by Charles Whittingham, owner of the Chiswick Press. The Chiswick Press was called “the foremost name in Victorian book design” and it later produced some of the early works of William Morris.
Byrne's version of the book used colored symbols (red, blue, yellow and black) instead of letters to prove the elements of Euclid. When it was published, it sold for 25 shillings compared to 4 or 5 shillings for a normal well-made book. Ruari McLean (collector of Victorian books and scholar in graphic arts) is credited with calling Byrne’s book one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the century.
The Kelmscott Press’ The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Now Newly Imprinted (commonly referred to as the “Kelmscott Chaucer”) was published in 1896 by William Morris. He lived at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, England. The press produced 425 copies in paper and 13 copies in vellum. This was Morris’ final great effort since he died within a few months after its publication.
The Kelmscott Chaucer took four years to prepare. It contains 87 wood cut illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones. In addition, there are many large border decorations, frame decorations, large initial word decorations, and ornamental initial letter decorations designed by William Morris. The book is printed in two columns of text with very elaborate illustrations and decorations throughout the book. Because William Morris was an admirer of the Middle Ages, he attempted to imitate the calligraphy of that time. The majority of the text is set in a 12-point style called “Chaucer” type, while some of the headings are set in “Troy” type. The type was handset on an 1891 Albion printing press on handmade paper. William Morris designed his type based on a work done by Nicolas Jensen in Venice in the 1470s. The ink was imported from Germany.
William Morris designed the book to show two facing pages as a single unit. His goal was to make a artistic book that was unified in all aspects of craftsmanship – fine paper, fine ink, fine binding, and fine printing. This was a reaction to the poor workmanship of most other printers of the period. The high quality of his work was a major factor inspiring the rise of fine printing presses in the twentieth century.
The Kelmscott Chaucer has been called one of the most beautiful books of the nineteenth century and of all times. Burne-Jones referred to the work as a “pocket cathedral.” Even though the book was sold out before it was even published, it was not a financial success. William Morris had to subsidize its production from the income of his other earlier works.
The Gutenberg Bible Leaf in the McCune Collection is a page from the Old Testament. It was produced in Mainz, Germany by Johannes Gutenberg between 1450-1455. The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with movable type in Europe and the start of the mass production of books.
The page contains two columns of 42 lines. The type is set in a style that mimics the handwriting of medieval scribes. Note the drop capital (large initial letter “A” that starts the page). It is colored blue (in contrast to the black text) and is significantly larger than the continuing text which is indented. This was a common technique used in medieval manuscripts.
This leaf was part of the “Noble Fragment” issued by a New York dealer, Gabriel Wells, in 1921. Wells bought a damage copy of the Gutenberg Bible, took it apart, and sold individual leaves and sections. The leaves were placed in a leather portfolio case with a bibliographical essay written by A. Edward Newton. These originally sold for prices ranging between $150 and $500.