King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The printed page

Caxton's The history of Reynard the foxe

Title page opening of Reynard the foxe, with text and illustrationsTitle page opening of Reynard the foxe, with text and illustrationsPoet, craftsman, textile designer, architect, socialist and businessman William Morris (1834-96) founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891 after hearing an inspirational lecture on printing given by his friend Emery Walker (1851-1933).

Morris’s aim was to restore to the making of books the craftsmanship of the early printers; he wished to create books that were beautiful in themselves, books that would be a pleasure to handle and to read. Only the finest materials were used and the design of every page and opening was carefully considered.

Ironically, given Morris’s socialist beliefs, this inevitably placed the productions of the Kelmscott Press beyond the purchasing power of all but the wealthy collector. Nevertheless, the influence of the Kelmscott Press was profound, inspiring not only the private press movement (see the next section of this online exhibition) but also the design of the eminently affordable Everyman’s Library series published from 1906 by Joseph Dent.

This copy of The history of Reynard the foxe is one of 300 printed on paper (a further 10 were printed on vellum). The paper itself was made to Morris's specification, in conscious imitation of the paper produced in Venice and Bologna in the 1470s; it is made of pure linen.

Morris believed that words should be set quite close together; too many snaking lines of white space on the text block distracted the reader. For the same reason he disliked the wide margins characteristic of large paper editions, at that time the customary format for the luxury book market. Morris did not issue large paper copies, preferring to offer his wealthier customers the option of buying a copy printed on vellum.

Morris also insisted that the opening (ie the two facing pages), rather than the individual page, should be the unit on which all decisions regarding design were based. This principle was clearly applied to the beautiful opening of title page and initial text page in The history of Reynard the foxe, which is reproduced here.

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