UBC has acquired what has been called 'the most beautiful of all printed books'. The Kelmscott Chaucer is available to see and touch in the university's Rare Books library.

Turn pages of rare Chaucer at UBC; valuable acquisition lends lustre to collection

It wasn’t what I expected. Not at all.

When I set off last week to see a rare book I’d heard UBC had acquired I imagined I’d be peering at it under glass – possible from a great distance.

Not so. I touched it. I examined the leather cover up close. I turned the pages and felt the texture of the paper. I had a wonderful time.

UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections recently announced they’d made an unusual and significant purchase – a Kelmscott Chaucer. One of only 438 copies printed, it was designed by noted 19th century designer William Morris – he of the arts and crafts movement.

The public can see the book at a weekly guided tour at the library or by appointment. So off I went.

At the reception desk I was asked to surrender and lock up all my possessions – except my phone and my small notebook – but no pens allowed. Pencils were proffered. Lesson number one – these people are particular!

I was taken in to a side library with my guide, Chelsea Shriver – turns out I was the only one on tour.

Chelsea brought out our first rare book. Lesson number two – no white gloves.

“When you wear gloves you kind of paw at the pages,” she pointed out. If the gloves are at all dirty they transfer more dirt than bare fingers. No gloves.

It was wonderful to feel the texture of the old paper – parchment and vellum – made from animals skins, distinct from today’s paper made from wood chips.

I saw a few more beautiful examples from UBC’s collection of rare books – displayed on the “book sofa” – like a dog bed but cleaner. That’s when I learned lesson three – a lace filled with lead draped over the book holds it open – brilliant!

UBC rare books

15th century book held open by lead-filled laces, on a book sofa

Then the Main Event. Kelmscott Press’ Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a hefty tome encased in a lovely leather cover and there it was on the book sofa for me to touch, turn pages and examine up close.

rare books

Opening page of Kelmscott Chaucer

William Morris had apparently been despairing over the declining quality of printing and design so in 1891 set up his own press. He decided to produce the Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and it was printed in 1896 – the year Morris died.

UBC Rare Books fundraised for two years then bought the book for $202,000 US.

The book is lovely to look at. Morris commissioned the illustrations and designed the typeface and drop-caps himself. It’s ornate yet readable. UBC’s copy is one of only 48 with the etched pigskin cover.

More lessons (okay, I’d lost count) – the book is printed in black and red. The words in red are rubrication – notes made alongside text to help the reader see where we are in the proceedings.

rare books

William Morris designed the typeface


rare books

The book went through the press twice – for black then red ink

At the end was the colophon – the credits – where the scribe would be acknowledged.

rare books

Colophon or end notes of Kelmscott Chaucer

Not only has UBC found a way to acquire this outstanding book – which poet William Butler Yeats called ‘the most beautiful of all printed books’ – but it makes it easy to see and to learn about. A rare treat indeed.

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