A new chapter in teaching is about to begin for the UBC Library with the acquisition of one of the world’s most extraordinary books.
Printed in a limited edition of only 438 copies, the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. Morris, a pivotal figure in the arts and crafts movement, spent four years designing what he believed to be the ideal book. Celebrated for its unique type, lavish decorative borders and remarkable illustrations, the poet William Butler Yeats later described it as the “most beautiful of all printed books.”
“The acquisition of this copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer is a significant coup for UBC,” said Gregory Mackie, assistant professor in UBC’s department of English. “Books like this one almost never come onto the international market, and only 48 copies exist in the world with this particular binding.”
Purchased for $202,000 USD, the book is one of the most valuable at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections. It joins other famous books at UBC, such as the Second Folio of Shakespeare, donated by Walter Koerner in 1960, strengthening the library’s world-renowned Colbeck Collection of 19th-century literature, which includes several extremely rare Kelmscott Press books.
Despite being published in 19th-century England, the Kelmscott Chaucer has many unexpected connections to Vancouver history, said Katherine Kalsbeek, head of UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections.
“Many architects and designers in early Vancouver looked to William Morris for inspiration,” said Kalsbeek. “From the Morris & Co. stained glass windows to Morris-designed textiles that were imported for houses and churches here, his legacy and impact still endure in this city.”
A joint acquisition by UBC Library and the faculty of arts, the Kelmscott Chaucer was purchased after two years of fundraising efforts, which included a substantial donation from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation of New York. UBC faculty, community members and UBC’s Centennial Initiatives Fund also contributed.
Siân Echard, head of the English department, said faculty members recognized the value of the Kelmscott Chaucer as a teaching tool.
“The Chaucer will not only help our students better understand the English-speaking world’s book culture at the end of the 19th century,” said Echard, “but it will also help illuminate that period’s profound engagement with the even more distant past of the Middle Ages.”
The Kelmscott Chaucer is available for viewing at the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. To view more photos, click here.