This is a true story – but it really doesn’t sound like one.
You have every right to doubt me, and I don’t blame you if you do… but I swear on everything I hold sacred, these events happened just as described!
When I was eight years old, my grandparents lived in Mount Pleasant in Perth, right on the edge of the river, and I would visit their house several times every year with the rest of my family.
They owned a wonderful old book-case, full to the brim of various Victorian novels that had been handed down through the family by long-dead relatives.
The bookcase itself was a lovely thing to look at, but the books were a bit of a mess – dozens of old, dusty, tatty, battered tomes by obscure 18th century authors and poets that were of no real interest to anyone.
In among those old books however, there was this one, newer-looking, reddish book on one of the upper shelves – still in great condition – and it constantly caught my eye.
For an age, I just assumed that this was a newer book that someone had absent-mindedly jammed into the bookcase with all the others.
After several days of staying with my grandparents and constantly noticing this book (but doing nothing about it), one day on the spur of the moment, I took it down off the shelf and opened it up for a read.
…that book blew my god-damned mind! …those are the only words that describe it.
There are few people on the planet who are fully familiar with the works of The Kelmscott Press, or have even heard of the company.
The Kemscott Press was a small, short-lived British book publisher. It operated for less than 10 years back in the late 1890’s, and it produced only a handful of titles, in very limited numbers.
But the Kelmscott Press is also regarded as producing some of the finest illustrated books the world has ever seen.
Being fully hand-made, their books were very expensive when they were published. Very few people could afford to buy one, and even fewer have seen one up close, or held one in the flesh.
But this magnificent illustrated masterpiece, in my tiny, grubby hands was one of them… an honest to God, genuine, hand-printed, hand-bound Kelmscott Press original, created under the direct instruction and oversight of William Morris himself (ask any Graphic Designer, Typographer, Interior Decorator or Art Historian who this man was, and they’ll tell you – he’s a pretty big deal!)
Plus, the book was in magnificent condition! No foxing, No inscription, no dog-eared corners or yellowing of the pages… just some very faint fading on the spine… that’s it!
Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time – I was eight years old! I just know the damn thing had me transfixed.
For one full week, this beautiful ‘Rembrant-In-The-Closet’ was all mine, and over that week, I looked over every inch of it lovingly, time and time again.
Eventually my grandfather took an interest in this old book that had me so enraptured, and immediately saw it was something special. He had it evaluated by a local book seller… who bought it off him for AU $17,000 that very week (…and in the 1970’s that was a hell of a lot of money!).
My Grandfather was very pleased with himself after that… right up until he discovered the book seller on-sold it shortly afterwards for a cool US $40,000 – and had made the local papers in the process.
I cannot tell you how heartbroken I am – even today – at the thought of that beautiful masterpiece leaving my family’s keeping, as it would have been originally bought by one of my great, great aunts. I dream sometimes of being able to track it down and buy it back (or one just like it) – but there’s is no way on earth I could ever afford one.
I don’t remember what the title or author was – it might have been a book of ancient verse. (….and no – it wasn’t The Kelmscott Chaucer, Mr Drooling book-collector… I only wish it was! Then maybe my grandfather wouldn’t have sold it.)
I confess that I forget the name of the publisher for a long time – it was only after seeing extracts of the Kelmscott Chaucer that I was able to put two-and-two together. (There was no confusion in my mind as to the its publisher – once you’ve seen a Kelmscott original, you never forget it.)
But enough reminiscing about long-passed water under a childhood bridge. I mentioned this story to illustrate a couple of points, so it’s about time I addressed them.
William Morris was an artist yes – but he was also a publisher and a businessman. And taking three years to craft his final labor of love, (which was “The Kelmscott Chaucer”) is a pretty big risk for any businessman to take, especially when there was little-to-no guarantee that the book would sell well.
But sell well it did – and it continues to gob-smack almost everyone who sees it, even in today’s media-soaked, jaded and cynical times. Quite an achievement all things considered.
The points I wanted to illustrate with all this are the following:
1.Great work inspires others to emulate it. My early exposure to that magnificent work, is one of the major reasons why I chose to become a professional creative – first a writer, then a designer, and now both at once.
2. Brilliant content never ages. These books will still be read and marveled over after we are all dust and gone.
3. Your inner imperatives can move people, in ways that technology cannot. When your work is an all-consuming labor of love, it stops being just a product, and starts to communicate with people on a very primal level – across culture, distance and time. That’s a lesson worth remembering – we are not trying to talk to people with our marketing efforts – we are trying to reach them, to move them and to effect them in very real ways… beautiful, personal statements that are artfully created still go a long way towards reaching that goal, in ways that a hollow Facebook post will never emulate.
Happy selling everyone. 🙂
PS: For those who wish to see more of these magnificent works for themselves, including William Morris’ final masterpiece (…he died just a few months after completing the “Chaucer”) I found a hi-res PDF copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer that’s free to download from an open-source archives website.
It’s a 40MB download – but the end result is worth every byte! Click here to grab yourself a FREE hi-res copy! – enjoy! 🙂
EDIT: Sorry – The Original Link I posed was broken – my very sincere apologies! 🙁 It should be working perfectly now.
(…and if not, please email me and I’ll send you a copy of the PDF I downloaded directly. No copyright issues apply, as the book is in the public domain due to its age.)