by Byron Gin
"A pocket cathedral": that was how 19th-century artist Edward Burne-Jones described the 1896 edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer produced by William Morris' Kelmscott Press. Burne-Jones' enthusiasm is understandable, since he created the 87 woodcut illustrations with their knights, friars, maidens and widows, all behaving badly. But he is far from alone in his esteem for the book known as the Kelmscott Chaucer. Printed in a limited edition of 428, Morris' Chaucer "is widely considered to be one of the great books of the world," says UNH Special Collections librarian William Ross.
Thanks to a recent gift from Gareth Dunleavy of Exeter, N.H., Morris' masterpiece and more than 100 other rare books are available to the general public through UNH Special Collections in Dimond Library. Morris created the type especially for this edition, had it hand cut and then destroyed it after the last page of the last book came off the press. He used thick, handmade paper for each page and blue linen for the cover. Copies are hard to come by, and at an auction a copy in good repair can fetch $50,000, according to Ross.
While the Kelmscott Chaucer and 79 other Chaucer titles are the highlight of the Gareth and Janet Dunleavy Chaucer Collection, it also includes rare editions of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur and Richard Arnold's Chronicles of London, printed in 1521.
The collection also contains a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses that has a link to Dunleavy's own past. The professor emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin was assigned to a training camp during World War II with a recruit who wanted to be an actor. There on the flyleaf of Shakespeare and Company's hand-printed edition is the signature of that other young soldier, Zero Mostel.
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