German Incunable Influences on William Morris's Chaucer Type

Oregon-based bookseller Philip J. Pirages is known for the range and quality of antiquarian books he stocks. If you’re looking for a book printed between 1450 and (say) 1800 that is significant for its content, production or presentation - a book that could legitimately be considered rare - he may not only have a copy, but a copy in the best possible condition. Pirages describes his focus generally as “historical artifacts that are physically attractive in some way - illuminated material, fine bindings, books printed on vellum, fore-edge paintings, beautiful typography and paper, impressive illustration.” An inevitable byproduct of a focus on antiquarian printing is encountering books that have lost leaves over the centuries (and leaves that have lost their books). Because he’s not a barbarian, he gathers these orphans as they come his way, and offers an extensive collection of printed and manuscript leaves.

Incomplete copies of even the most rare and valuable book cannot be “restored” or made whole again. If only a few leaves are missing, it might be possible and worthwhile to have facsimiles made, but that’s tricky and expensive, plus you’re still left with what technically is an incomplete copy. If you found another broken copy that had the leaves you need, you could “make up” a copy, but that also isn’t ideal. And if you’re presented with a copy of a book that is really incomplete (for example, when HM was offered about 70 leaves cut from a Doves Bible, used in the recent Kelmscott & Doves Presses publication), what are your options? That toothpaste cannot be put back in its tube. 

One option in such circumstances is a leaf book - a book about the book, each copy with a leaf from the original included. For students of printing, history, design, etc etc, even the best reproduction does not compare to seeing the actual type on the actual paper. Some people have dismissed leaf books as ghoulish, but these people generally don’t appreciate the reference value they offer, and they typically assume a complete copy was broken up just for the leaves, i.e. these people don’t know anything about antiquarian books: any book worth being the subject of a leaf book, would be more valuable as a complete copy vs what a printer could hope to net from publishing a leaf book. Hence, on Pirages' Web site, is the statement in bold text, “Leaves are acquired individually or as part of a fragment of a book only. WE DO NOT TAKE APART COMPLETE BOOKS IN ORDER TO SELL INDIVIDUAL LEAVES.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to how Pirages has come to publish a fascinating multi-leaf book, Letters From The 15th Century: On The Origins of the Kelmscott Chaucer Typeface - A Study, with Specimen Leaves, of the Influence of the Early German Printers on William Morris’ Masterpiece. Each copy in the edition of 165 includes a leaf from the Chaucer, plus leaves from four German incunables. The text, by Pirages, is a study of Morris’s Chaucer type and how its design was influenced by the types used in the 1470s by the German printers. The book was printed by Art Larson (printer formerly of books for Leonard Baskin, and recently of books for HM’s friend Sarah Horowitz), and bound in three (i.e. four) states by Amy Borezo (who, incidentally, published a really interesting Lovecraft book a few years ago…).

Some of the best leaf books of the 20th century were published by booksellers (the people who end up with the books other people don’t take care of), especially in the first half of the century. But there aren’t a lot of leaf books being published these days, by anyone, so I was interested to ask Pirages some how & why questions about his project. But first, here is a brief summary of the project's genesis from Pirages' Web site:

"The story of the production is heavy on serendipity: in the winter of 2012, after purchasing a very incomplete copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer at auction, we considered the possibility of producing a leaf book, but because the Chaucer--universally considered to be one of the most beautiful books ever printed--had been written about by so many different people in so many different ways, we didn't know what aspect was left for us to explore. The one topic we fastened on as thus far inadequately examined is the origin of the work's typeface. We soon learned that Morris, who is known to have owned more than 500 incunables, most admired--and was, consequently, most likely to have been influenced in his typographic design by--Peter Schoeffer of Mainz, Johann Mentelin of Strassburg, G√ľnther Zainer of Augsburg, and Anton Koberger of Nuremberg. Over the course of the years succeeding the purchase of the defective Chaucer, we were fortunate beyond all expectation to acquire incomplete books from each of these four eminent printers. As a result, the present leaf book will allow the reader not only to read in the accompanying essay about the influence on Morris of his typographic forebears, but also to compare with his or her own eyes the resemblances between the Kelmscott leaf and the leaves from four centuries earlier."

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HM: The first question you’re faced with when publishing a leaf book is, what text would be appropriate for the presentation of the leaf? It can be especially challenging if the leaf is from a book about which much has already been written - what can you add that is new and of value? For your project you focused on the development of Morris’ Chaucer type, which you felt had been inadequately examined. How did you zero in on that as a topic, and what was involved in telling the story? 

PP: Not enough has been said, and, apart from the commentary of William S. Peterson and John Dreyfus, most of the remarks have been of little value and even bogus. I spent a considerable amount of enjoyable time researching and hypothesizing about the connections between the Chaucer type and the early German printers, specifically those working in the 1470s, and more specifically Peter Schoeffer, Johann Mentelin, Gunter Zainer, and Anton Koberger, who I believe are shown in the text of the leaf book to have been Morris’ gothic All-Stars. The leaf book text includes a chart that quantifies the resemblances between each of the Chaucer letter forms and each of the characters in each of the typecases of the four early printers. It might be mathematical overkill, but I was trying to escape subjectivity and introduce some degree of objectivity.

Without scooping your own book, can you give me a summary the main thesis? 

PP: The design of the Chaucer typeface can clearly be seen as directly linked to the type used by Schoeffer, Mentelin, Gunter Zainer, and Koberger. And the five leaves that are the special part of the leaf book (the Kelmscott Chaucer leaf and a leaf from each of the four early German printers) show this pretty well.

What is your opinion of the Kelmscott Chaucer, as a book? 

PP: It is magnificent, the outstanding achievement of the Arts & Crafts movement and one of the most beautiful and important books ever printed.
Your book also includes four German incunable leaves, illustrating exemplars or influences Morris presumably drew from when conceiving the Chaucer type. The benefit of seeing and touching actual printed leaves, even against the best reproductions, cannot be overstated. A project like this essentially becomes a self-contained course in printing and history - which is what a good leaf book should be. There were some fantastic leaf books issued in the first half of the 20th century, especially by booksellers (presumably because they’re the ones who find/save the broken books). But as a genre, if it can be called one, it seems to have waned in recent decades. What’s your perspective as a bookseller on the role or place of leaf books in the current market, versus (say) 50 years ago?  

PP: I really can’t say why leaf books may be going out of fashion. Perhaps because the emphasis in the marketplace on modern first editions doesn’t really encourage their production?

Some people have a reflexive dislike, or even disdain, for leaf books. In my experience this seems to come from assumptions that something was destroyed - broken - because the bits will be worth more than the whole. Maybe that’s been done, but I suspect the vast majority of leaf books were a response to having a fragment of something with significance to the history of printing, and wanting to make the best use of it. The cost of conserving, or even restoring, a book can quickly exceed its market value, and that’s for a complete copy. What to do when you have just pieces of the book? That’s a long preamble to my questions, which are (1) do you agree with any of that; and (2) how do you explain the value of book like the one you’re publishing to people who are suspicious of the format/concept? 

PP: In 41 years of bookselling I have never taken apart a complete book to sell single leaves.  But we do sell single leaves when we buy fragments or groups of leaves (almost always at auction). I can understand why some persons may say that simply selling such leaves encourages the breaking of complete books, and this may possibly be true. I have no defense to that accusation except to say that the individual leaves we have sold over the years have come from books that, in complete (or even incomplete) form, would be far beyond the ability of the vast majority of buyers to acquire, whereas single leaves offer a very large number of customers the pleasure of ownership of beautiful and at the same time affordable printed or manuscript artifacts.

You published a book in 1991, with a Sweynheym & Pannartz leaf, printed by Henry Morris. Do you have any particular memories or stories of working with him? 

PP: He was always striving for perfection, and he had a vision of what our book should look like. The author, Edwin Hall, and I did not always agree with him, but his way was pretty much the way we did things in the end. His reputation speaks loudly for him.

One challenge when publishing a book about another book, or work by a specific printer, is how much to reflect the aesthetics of that work in the new design. It’s very easy to fall into pastiche. At the same time, one cannot simply ignore the original’s aesthetic. I’ve always thought a complimentary design should be the goal. Your book encompasses Morris’s style and the German incunables, which is some visually heavy company for your design to integrate with in its own distinct way. What were some of the things you considered when designing the book (by “book” I include the entire presentation - binding, box, leaves etc)? 

PP: This is a very good question. I thought about using a typeface that somehow resembled the Chaucer, and it was hopeless. I actually chose something closer to Italian Renaissance (Bembo) than anything else, so little connection there. Where there is a connection is in three of the four bindings used.  The edition has four versions: for the least costly, we use a linen-backed blue paper boards binding that is very like bindings used by Kelmscott; we used flexible vellum with ties (again, echoing Kelmscott bindings) for the next-to-most costly version, and we used a specially designed pigskin binding (echoing those done at the Doves Bindery for the Chaucer) to go with the two super deluxe copies (which sold before we even had a chance to advertise the book). The fourth binding (for the medium-priced version) is cloth over boards, the cloth being the Ebony Cray pattern created by William Morris. (The various prices of the versions are directly related to the degree of decoration on the Kelmscott leaf that is included with each copy.)

The Chaucer is a very large book. Your book is a smaller format, nestled in a clamshell box along with the leaves (loose). At any point did you ponder designing the book in a size that would allow the Chaucer to be tipped in? I confess that my preference is not to have the leaves separate from the book, but I understand the argument for having them separate. The basic question here is one of merging the book design with the leaf, and how much they are integrated or kept separate. 

PP: I had originally thought about the text being bound to a format matching the size of the Chaucer leaf, but there were too many design and logistical issues militating against this. It just didn’t work.

Were there any particular challenges during the design or production stages of the book? 

PP: Where shall I begin? I knew when we started that there would be inevitable problems with something as complex as this production, especially with work being done at different locations. But, fortunately, we had flexible deadlines. The main thing to be said here is that the project succeeded—and was enjoyable—because my main collaborators, Jill Mann, Art Larson, and Amy Borezo, were not only highly skilled, but very patient.

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I enjoyed this correspondence with Phil about his new book (but I didn't enjoy having to remove all the extra spaces he put in after a period! Period space, people, not period space space.)

Letters From The 15th Century
has just been issued, and copies of all three states remain available (see here).

And p.s., a note about terminology: a leaf is what you turn when reading a book. A leaf has two pages, one on each side.