The Daily Heller: What Do William Morris and Sgt. Pepper Have in Common?

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Dr. Michael John Goodman last appeared on The Daily Heller when he created the Illustrated Charles Dickens Online. Today he is back to announce the launch of the Illustrated Geoffrey Chaucer Online. Being an admirer of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, I was interested to see what was available on this new site that I’ve not previously seen in reproductions. I was also anxious to discuss his rationale for preserving these digitized illustrations, boarders and typeface. The following interview fills in some of the missing links …

What prompted your digitization of the Kelmscott Chaucer?
There were two main starting points for this project, Steven: The first is, I very much wanted to immerse myself in the world of William Morris in the late 19th century and to learn about the extraordinary work he and others did with the Kelmscott Press between 1891 and 1898. In my experience there is no better way to explore and learn about the history of book design and book illustration than a digitization project, as the challenges you face in that process almost replicate that of the book designer themselves. For example, you are faced with both editorial and design choices in the creation of these projects, such as how you want the images to appear on screen, typography decisions, as well as how you want a user to navigate through the website itself. All these factors create meaning and affect a user’s experience of the website in a way that is very synonymous with the experience of navigating a book.

The second starting point was my surprise that the Kelmscott Chaucer had not been digitized before in a way that I, personally, found user-friendly or attractive. My facsimile copy of the book had sat on my shelf for the best part of a decade, and I had always assumed that it had been digitized and made accessible online. It was only when I become frustrated with another project I was working on that I saw my copy of the Chaucer and did an online search. I found that a couple of libraries had digital copies, but they were embedded within these libraries’ own digital ecosystems, were difficult to navigate, and were presented very minimally. I felt I could create a more curated experience for users that foregrounded the visual aspect of the book in way that was accessible, fun to navigate, and allowed the user to explore it in a way that was both meaningful, immersive and intimate.

Alongside these ideas, I felt, as well, that this project would be an interesting counterpoint to my other two illustration projects, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive and the Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery. While the Shakespeare Archive looked at how different illustrators imagined Shakespeare’s plays throughout the 19th century, and the Dickens Gallery concentrated (mostly) on the creative partnership between a contemporary author and an illustrator during the mid 1800s, the Kelmscott Chaucer Online would emphasize how, at the end of the 19th century, the book itself (and the component parts that constitute it) had become an aesthetic object, and the implications of that.

You note that, “The Kelmscott Chaucer is very much a book to be looked at rather than read. All images have been scanned in to a high resolution …” Why is it only a visual experience?
For me (though I am sure others will disagree!), the artistic power of the Kelmscott Chaucer is in the harmonious balance that is achieved between Burne-Jones’ illustrations and Morris’ frames, borders, typography and the visually striking double-page spreads. And users can investigate each of these aspects individually in turn on the website. The decision to make it a primarily visual experience is both practical and editorial. Practically, it just would not be worth the time and effort to digitize nearly 600 pages, especially when the complete works of Chaucer are available for anyone to read almost everywhere and for very cheap. Even if this aim was desirable and could have been achieved efficiently, it would have changed the very nature of the project, bloating it out into a project where the focus became so broad that the visual aspects would have become, if not diluted, then certainly more obscured amongst a sea of similar-looking text-based pages.

This is not, of course, to say that text is not significant in the Kelmscott Chaucer; it so obviously is. Indeed, Morris spent a long time creating the typeface he would use for this project (appropriately, he would call it “Chaucer”). But when we look at the text, as on the opening page spread, for example, we’re not necessarily reading it, as we do a book, but we’re looking at it and we’re feeling it in relation to the other visual aspects that make up the page. Typography in the Kelmscott Chaucer is visual rather than verbal. Indeed, several critics have noted that the book is so big that it is impossible to read comfortably. That is to miss the point. No one is going to be sitting down with a Kelmscott Chaucer in an evening to read The Wife of Bath. The point is the book itself: It exists as an object of art, an aesthetic artefact. With William Morris, 60 years or so before Marshall McLuhan, the medium was the message.

You’ve painstakingly made high-res images of 87 woodcut illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, and the 18 frames, 14 borders and 26 decorative words designed by William Morris. What is the significance of this book to designers?
The book is significant to designers for two reasons, from a historical perspective and a contemporary one in the 21st century. The historical perspective is that this book, and the Kelmscott Press more generally, would go on to have a big influence on how we think about book design in the 20th century. If today we talk about the best typeface to use for a project, how word and image might be balanced on the page, or even the best type of paper to use for a publication, it is down to the work of Morris and his colleagues. In fact, as designers, we’ve internalized these ideas so much that they seem today like a statement of the obvious, but it was not always that way. It is testament to the influence of Kelmscott, and the Kelmscott Chaucer particularly, that we have normalized and absorbed many of the press’ fundamental principles. To quote Morris: “Whatever the subject matter of a book may be, and however bare it may be of decoration, it can still be a work of art if the type be good and attention paid to its general arrangement.”

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about both the artwork and the music for The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it occurred to me that what The Beatles (and Peter Blake, who designed the cover) achieve, and what makes the album so compelling is the sense of an entire hermetic visual and sonic world, quite unlike anything else. It struck me last week that this is exactly what Morris and Burne-Jones accomplished here with the Kelmscott Chaucer. With Morris as designer and Burne-Jones as illustrator, they create their own hugely distinct Chaucerian medieval world that never existed, in a similar way to how the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s created an Edwardian period that existed only in their imaginations. Both The Beatles and Blake, and Morris and Burne-Jones, use the past to comment upon the present in a way that is so all-encompassing that their work continues to generate more power and fascination as the years go by. This is why the Kelmscott Chaucer is significant to designers in the 21st century: It gives them the freedom to imagine other worlds, other ways of being, and how to do things differently.

I love the analogy. Did you have to work from the original book? How did you prevent damage to your repro copy?
Good question! For this project I used a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer published in the 1950s. I bought it about 10 years ago as I had heard a lot about the book before and wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. It has sat on my shelf for many years until recently. As I can’t afford a decent photography set-up for digitization work, I use a flat-bed scanner and am very hands-on in a way that I think would appeal to William Morris and his friends in the Arts & Crafts movement. It all is fairly low-tech! Over the years I’ve developed relatively good Photoshop skills for this kind of work, so even though the facsimile copy I am working from is just a bit too big for the scanner, I can correct any shadowing, blemishes or creases within that piece of software. Obviously, then, the scanner I am using is too small to be able to fit in a double-page spread, so I then stitch those images together in Photoshop to give the impression of a cohesive whole. It all takes a very long time, but there is a real craft to it all that is very fulfilling and rewarding when you see what the final images look like.

Who do you anticipate your audience will be?
I am so glad you have asked this question, because it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. The short answer is I just do not know. Out of the three illustration projects I have worked on, this one is certainly the most niche, which is precisely what makes it interesting. The Dickens Gallery had such a positive response because Dickens is a hugely popular author and people have responded in very diverse ways because of that—teachers have been using it, businesses have been in contact and want to use some illustrations for logos, and some of the illustrations are being used in a documentary. The same goes for the Shakespeare Archive. My instinct is that whereas these previous projects had much more of an appeal to students of English literature, I think this one is going to appeal much more to historians of art and design. I cannot imagine, for example, Burne-Jones’ illustrations, as incredible as they are, being used in a class to help students better understand Chaucer. They are far too distinct, unique and entwined within the visual world of the Kelmscott Chaucer. I can envisage, however, an art historian using the resource in class to investigate the influence the book had on the development of design at the start of the 20th century. We will see, but it is always enlightening and exciting to see who is using my projects, and in what way.

What do you think Mr. Morris would say if he knew that the industry has produced such invaluable tools for preservation of his and other artisans’ work?
You have really given my brain a workout today, Steven! William Morris was such a complicated figure (which is why he is so endlessly fascinating), so I can guarantee that whatever I say here, there will be plentiful evidence to the contrary. My instinct is that Morris would find the creative (and, perhaps, political) potential of the internet hugely stimulating and exciting. The idea that people all over the world, as long as they have an internet connection, can get to experience his work is one that I expect he would find immensely satisfying. Although he would caveat that by saying the digital is not the same as the physical object itself, he would take great pleasure that his work is getting disseminated to a huge audience that was impossible in the late 19th century. I also suspect he would very much enjoy using Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign whilst bemoaning their capacity to produce homogenous work and getting frustrated (like the rest of us) when they do not do what he wants them to.