FEATURES • Spring 2001
Printing blocks from the Ashendene Press.

The Washington University Libraries recently acquired the Triple Crown Collection—a rare collection of books, proof pages, and business correspondence from the legendary Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene presses during the Arts & Crafts Movement.

by Liam Otten

What do you picture when you hear the word 'treasure'? A pirate chest half-buried in sand? A fairy-tale cavern littered with trinkets? Fort Knox?

For bibliophiles, a treasure might include books from the Arts & Crafts Movement, which flourished from the mid-19th to the early 20th century—one of the richest periods in the history of bookmaking. And unlike, say, Ali Baba's mythical hideaway, these literary treasures may now be experienced firsthand at Washington University's Olin Library Special Collections. The library recently acquired a near-legendary trove of Arts & Crafts-era books and related ephemera.

The Triple Crown Collection, built over 68 years by Charles Gould of Pasadena, California, includes some 150 volumes marking the complete works of the Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene presses, which together represent the epitome of Arts & Crafts book design. Yet what makes this collection so valuable is that Gould—who acquired his first Doves book in 1932 and made his last purchase just a year ago—also amassed hundreds of items relating to the history of each press. These include—but are by no means limited to—business correspondence, proof pages, inscribed volumes, alternate bindings, preparatory sketches, and even original woodcut printing blocks.

 
Song of Solomon (Ashendene Press, 1902). Printed on vellum and illuminated throughout by Florence Kingsford.

"The acquisition of the Triple Crown Collection lifts [the Libraries'] already strong holdings into a new dimension."

"The acquisition of this collection is no mincing step," declares Shirley Baker, dean of University Libraries and vice chancellor for information technology, who was alerted to the collection's availability in spring 2000 by a member of the University Libraries National Council. (Final purchase, through Bromer Booksellers, Inc., of Boston, was made possible in part by the University's Philip Mills Arnold Endowment Fund and by the generosity of an anonymous donor.) "The acquisition of the Triple Crown Collection lifts our already strong holdings into a new dimension," Baker adds. "Faculty and students will profit from having this collection here, as will researchers around the world."

Beginning a Movement

The Arts & Crafts Movement began in the mid-1800s as a reaction against both the opulence of Victorian style and the often shoddy quality of machine-made goods. Artists and writers like Walter Crane and John Ruskin, concerned that the Industrial Revolution was harming creativity and individualism, advocated a return to principles of simplicity, functionality, and craftsmanship.

William Morris (1834-1896)—the prolific designer and the movement's most influential figure—applied this philosophy and his own considerable talents to the design of everything from furniture and wallpaper to stained glass, mosaics, tapestries, and, of course, books. Morris' Kelmscott Press, between 1890 and his death in 1896, published 52 titles that employed such startling "innovations" as handmade papers, original typefaces, hand presses, and newer, blacker inks.

Morris inspired generations of printers and designers in England, Germany, and America. Chief among these were T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and Emery Walker (1851-1933), whose austere Doves Press proved in many ways the Kelmscott's successor, and C.H. St. John Hornby (1867-1946), whose Ashendene Press continued the Kelmscott tradition of fine workmanship.

 

Left: Milton's Paradise Regain'd (Doves Press, 1906). Printed on vellum and bound in full pigskin over oak boards by James Brockman while he was at the Eddington Bindery.

Below: The English Bible (Doves Press, 1903-05). Page proof of "Genesis" opening (at left), featuring hand-lettered "IN THE BEGINNING" by Cobden-Sanderson.

Reflecting a Cultural Phenomenon

"What makes the Triple Crown so valuable—and such a wonderful teaching tool—is the way it allows you to observe the designers' decision-making process," explains Anne Posega, head of Special Collections, noting that scholars were not previously aware of the existence of many of its contents. (One scholar, Marianne Tidcombe, author of an exhaustive bibliography on the Doves Press, went so far as to delay her book's production upon learning of the Triple Crown's existence so that she could consult the collection.)

"For students of bookmaking or graphic design, it's very instructive to be able to look at early page proofs and see someone like William Morris experimenting with typefaces or layouts," Posega continues. "You begin to understand why a designer might have changed this margin from an inch to an inch-and-a-half or that paragraph from six to seven lines."

She points to one of the collection's highlights, Cobden-Sanderson's The English Bible (1903-05), a five-volume set widely regarded as a masterpiece of the typographer's art. Like all Doves publications, The English Bible contains no illustrations or decorations except for initial letters, here designed by calligrapher Edward Johnston and printed in bright red. Significantly, the Triple Crown set includes not just the printed volumes, but also an incredibly rare early proof of the opening to "Genesis," in which Cobden-Sanderson has hand-lettered, in red ink, the phrase "IN THE BEGINNING."

Other highlights include The Journal of Joseph Hornby (1894), from the Ashendene Press; Cobden-Sanderson's first book, Tacitus' Agricola (1900), in a one-of-a-kind binding designed for his wife and bearing her initials; Morris' eight-volume set of The Earthly Paradise (1896-97), including a design for the title page in Morris' hand; and what is thought to be one of the earliest proof-sheets using Morris' Chaucer type.

Yet for all the impressive pieces, the Triple Crown's true strength lies in the depth of the whole, and the glimpse it offers into the history of bookmaking, the history of publishing, and even the history of the Arts & Crafts Movement. As Richard Davis, professor of history and director of the Center for the History of Freedom, explains, the Triple Crown "represents a very important cultural phenomenon (and) insofar as it reflects the taste and attitudes of William Morris and his circle ... has social and political implications as well."

Liam Otten is a senior news writer in WU's Office of University Communications.

For more information, visit: library.wustl.edu/units/spec/rarebooks/triplecrown/.