at last! a real Kelmscott

I have been hoping to get a good example of a real Kelmscott Press book for many years. I have a Doves Press item, three Ashendene Press items, an Eragny, an Essex House, but not a Kelmscott. But a couple of weeks ago I acquired, at auction, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, John Ruskin, Kelmscott Press, 1892, for about a third of its retail price. The reason for the low price was the binding – original but damaged.

Thin vellum, over stiff boards, no headbands, four ribbon ties – two broken, two very worn.

Now, the received wisdom among both collectors and the rare book trade is that a collectable book should be in its original binding which should itself be in good condition. And if in ‘fine’ condition, so much the better – i.e. more expensive. But what if the binding in which a private press book, such as a Kelmscott, was initially sold is actually pretty cheap and certainly not durable? That is certainly the case here..

Spine is not rounded or backed. The vellum covering is lined with paper, but very thin – probably India paper. There is a narrow French Groove to the joints. The covers are bowed outwards, from shrinkage of the thin vellum covering.

All in all, a very cheap trade binding by J J Leighton, costing only a few shillings (say. 50 US cents) at the time. So the binding, even if perfectly intact, is still unworthy of the printed book it contains. The printed text not only conveys the words of a famous (if very odd) Victorian writer on art and aesthetics, but does so on fine hand-made paper printed with great skill and enriched by very pleasing mock-medieval initial letters designed by Morris.

So, the text not only needs a new binding but deserves better than the one Morris gave it.

But what?

Forty years ago I experimented on a little Book of Psalms, printed by J M dent in their Temple Bible series in 1902. Quarter ‘fair’ calf over oak boards, with the original four raised bands retained and a manuscript title in ink.

What do you think? Answers, please, on the ‘comments’ page.

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