Emery Walker & the Kelmscott Press
Portable imprints of Morris’s beliefs
In 1888 Walker gave a lecture to the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society that is now considered a defining moment in the history of typography.
Despite being uncomfortable speaking in public, Walker showed inspirational, 'magic lantern' slides of photographic enlargements of type from early printed books by a fifteenth-century Venetian printer called Nicolas Jenson. It was what May Morris, William’s daughter, later called a 'eureka' moment for her father. He thought that if he could create a new font using the Jenson as a basis, and with Emery Walker’s advice, he could finally produce what he called 'The Ideal Book'.
With Walker advising on paper and ink, type design and typography, Morris set up the Kelmscott Press in 1890, which was to be his last great Arts & Crafts project.
'I was not much of a typographer before Mr Walker took me in hand'
He offered Walker a partnership in what would become the Kelmscott Press.
Walker later wrote:
‘I had refused at the outset to be his partner, having some sense of proportion’.
This has been interpreted as Walker’s self-deprecating view of himself. However, Morris claimed that
‘…I shall want to do everything my own way’
This therefore may have been a factor too. Walker was a partner in all but name, Morris constantly seeking his advice and technical help, and regarding any day in which they had enjoyed no contact as a lesser one.
Morris viewed printing in the same way as much else in nineteenth-century life, degraded by mass production and the pursuit of profit over quality and craftsmanship. Increased literacy had led to a greater demand for reading material, but high print runs meant a fall in reproduction standards. This was made worse by popular Victorian text typefaces, with their contrasting thick and thin character strokes. Under the strain of careless inking and low-grade paper, their printed impression was liable to break up on the page.
Just as Morris was energised by Walker’s use of a relatively modern medium, the slide show, he would now take advantage of another under Walker’s direction, photography. Walker made enlargements of pages from late fifteenth century Italian books, the type of which Morris used as the basis for his Golden type, named after the projected first book for the Press, de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, but actually appearing first in Morris’s own The Story of the Glittering Plain, in 1891. Morris’s lettering was dark and heavy, his pages highly illustrated and decorated, and his taste for medieval styling found full expression.
In terms of a revolution in book design, this would eventually prove a stylistic and labour-intensive cul-de-sac. But the Kelmscott books were highly inspirational, in Europe and the United States. Bruce Rogers, working as an illustrator in Indianapolis, decided after seeing some that his future lay in book design. He would work with Walker during two breaks in Britain. The Bauhaus, a revolutionary German design school, although seeking to harness mass-production, would later take inspiration from Morris’s ideas on craftsmanship.
'...good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort...'
To Morris we owe the concept of a design philosophy: a set of aesthetics and standards applied to every aspect of life. He saw books as central: ‘To enjoy good houses and good books in self-respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle.’ The Kelmscott books were portable outriders for Morris’ beliefs, and Walker was instrumental in making them a reality.
Interested in typeface? Download an illustrated glossary.