Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis
William Morris, 1834-96, printer designer
29.4 x 21.4 cm.
Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 11
Source: Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis by Stephen Langton (d. 1228), p. 3.
Collection: Boston Athenaeum from the income of the fund given by John Bromfield.
William Morris's printed illuminated transcription of an early thirteenth-century English Psalter, written as poems of praise to St. Mary the Virgin, includes four pages from Luke's Gospel and concludes with a Te Deum. Today the original Psalter, which Morris once owned, is known as the Reading Abbey Psalter and is in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Needham, 35). [Continued below]
Mouse over text below to find links
Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum
Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith
Much of the story of Morris's Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis is told in an inscription, two tipped-in notes inside the front cover, and in the colophon. The penciled inscription condenses the other three sources, stating that this was the first book Morris issued in three colors, and that the text was taken from an English manuscript owned by him. After the Laudes was published, Reverend E. S. Dewick informed Morris that the text had been printed as Psalterium Divae Virginis Mariae in 1579 by Tergernsee, who attributed it to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207 to 1228. Morris set Dewick's remarks in Chaucer type in December 1896, distributing them to purchasers of the Laudes, and this circular is one of the tipped-in notes. The other note, set in Golden type, was a prospectus for the Laudes, from which we learn that the 250 paper copies Morris printed were available at 10 shillings, the ten vellum copies were priced at 2 guineas, and all copies were set in Troy type and bound in half holland. In the colophon Morris told his readers, "These poems are taken from a Psalter written by an English scribe, most likely in one of the Midland counties, early in the thirteenth century." Unlike earlier nineteenth-century authors, Morris felt no need to defend himself from any accusations of "Romanism" or "Marioltry" for publishing a devotional book praising Mary. The battle fought by Jones, Humphreys, and Ruskin to claim the Gothic spirit as a universal source of inspiration for Protestants as well as Roman Catholics had been won by 1896.
Morris's most widely influential contribution to the rediscovery of and delight in illuminated manuscripts that suffused the Victorian period was his interest in going back to first principles as a printer. He knew and owned medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and in the 1850s and 1870s had tried his hand as a scribe (cat. 59). Now, however, in the 1890s, after his experiences as a designer of architectural environments, textiles, and wallpapers, he turned to book printing. His concern with the kind of paper, quality of ink, shape of types and ornament, and their placement on the page sparked a simplification and renewal in printing design that had international repercussions (S. Thompson, passim). A summary of Morris's practice as a printer is given in his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press (cat. 21).
Page 3 from the Laudes exemplifies Morris's innovations as well as his relationship with the works of Blake, Jones, Humphreys, the Audsleys, and Fleet from earlier in the century. The paper is handmade from a linen base, harking back to the paper-making techniques in use when Blake illustrated the Book of Job in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Like Blake's book, Morris's is in a temporary binding, in the expectation that the purchaser would have the text hand-bound after it was bought.
The Troy type used here was Morris's second new design, the first being the Golden type, a Roman font seen in the prospectus note and in cats. 21, 33-34, 51. Troy is a Gothic font and took its name from the book Morris designed it for in 1891-92, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (Morris, Aims, 13). In the Laudes the Troy is most appropriately used as a transcription of a thirteenth-century scribal text. Jones and Humphreys wrote their Gothic text on the lithographic stone to achieve a similar effect. Morris went back to the first productions of the printing press and found that these early books, called incunabula, exhibited characteristics of the hand-written books which were their models. Troy was Morris's favorite of the three types he designed, and it shows the influence of the early German printers Peter Schoeffler, Gunther Zainer, and Anton Koberger, without imitating any specific example of their Gothic or black letter type (Morris, Aims, 13). By eliminating the spiky shape which had intrigued earlier aficionados of the Gothic letter, Morris achieved a bolder, more readable text that still made gracious visual reference to the Middle Ages.
Setting the text block in a manner which assumes the two-page spread as the design unit, Morris returned to a medieval format, as did the early German printers and Jones and Humphreys. Furthermore, even when Morris did not place a decorative border around his text he conformed to the double-page format, with the widest margin at the tail, the next widest at the fore-edge, a slightly narrower border at the head, and the narrowest in the hinge. The text block in the Laudes is punctuated with six Ave's beginning with illuminated initial As, three of which are printed in blue ink. Generally this is not the kind of page one associates with Morris because it is done in three inks — blue, black and red—and the text is not surrounded with border ornament. Nonetheless, it shows Morris at the height of his powers as a designer, creating a visual environment that brings the poetry alive.
Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.
Langton, Stephen. Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896. Printer-Designer: William Morris. This Boston Athenaeum copy has the bookplate of Robert Hall, 1902, and Two tipped-in printed notes on pastedown and front free end leaf, pencil inscription on the front free end leaf.
Thompson, Susan Otis. American Book Design and William Morris. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1977.
Last modified 18 December 2013