Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend of Master William Caxton Done Anew (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892) Shelfmark: Vet.Trans.4-6

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend of Master William Caxton Done Anew (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1892)

The three-volume edition of The Golden Legend from 1892 is St John’s College’s only holding of The Kelmscott Press. Founded by William Morris (1834-1896) in 1891, The Kelmscott Press is arguably the most renowned English private press. Inspired by medieval illustrated manuscripts and early printed books, Morris’s aim was to return to the manual process of book making and “to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type” (Fiona MacCathy, “Morris, William”, ODNB at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19322).

The Golden Legend (or Legenda aurea) is a 13th-century collection of saints’ lives. William Caxton, England’s first printer, translated this popular medieval text into English with some editorial changes, such as adding some English and Irish saints to the mix. It is Caxton’s text which was newly edited for this Kelmscott Press publication and accompanied by illustrations from Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Morris created three different fonts for his Kelmscott Press. The “Golden Type”, which is used here, was based on the type designed by the early book printer Nicolas Jenson in the late 15th century. Not only Morris and Burne-Jones were delighted with the end-product. A contemporary book review praised it as marking “a new epoch in the production of beautiful books in this country” (The Library v.1 (1892), p. 346).

St John’s copy arrived as part of a larger donation made by Dunstan Skilbeck in memory of his father Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-54), an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones. It is not quite clear, however, if Clement Oswald was the first owner of these volumes as all of them, including The Golden Legend, have a bookmark that, albeit designed by Clement Oswald, names one “John H. Skilbeck” as the owner.  

If you would like to find out more about St John’s College’s private press books, have a look at this blog post based on a talk given at the Oxford Bibliographical Society on 9 December 2021.