William Morris

On the Printing of Books, as reported in the press


The talk was first given in Manchester on the 21st of October 1893, under the title Printed Books - Ancient and Modern

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser

An illustrated lecture on "Printed Books — Ancient and Modern," was delivered by Mr. William Morris, under the auspices of the Technical Instruction Committee the Manchester City Council, in the Mayor's Parlour, Town Hall, on Saturday evening. Mr. Alderman Hoy presided, in the absence of the Lord Mayor, and there was a good attendance. The lecturer said books were written by the scribe long after printing became an art, but they were more for ornament than publication. He feared they must regard printing as a makeshift for writing. The rubricator and the illuminator died harder than the scribe, and were employed in the making of many of the oldest books. The forms of letters were arbitrary, and remain so until the time, which he believed was not far distant, when we would see end to printing books, and would speak into a bottle or something of the sort and so convey their ideas. (Laughter.) The first book ever printed was one of the best in point of workmanship. One great fault in early printing was that the printers did not quite understand the capacity of their art, but followed the abbreviations of the scribe too closely, their object being to imitate the writing as much as possible. The first example of printing in two colours was dated 1457. Having with the aid of limelight illustrations traced the transition of letters from the Gothic to the Roman type, the lecturer said it was wonderful what a beautiful thing and pleasant companion a book might be made simply as a work of art, without regard to the information it contained. A book had a tendency be beautiful in spite of all the degradation that printing had undergone. He was aware that modern books could not look as fine as some of the old books unless they were prepared great expense, but the ordinary shilling and half-crown book might be made to look beautiful if decent paper was used, because the beauty of a book did not depend altogether upon ornamentation. On the contrary, it was possible to spoil a book by injudicious or excessive ornamentation. A very great improvement had been made in the printing of books in England in the last 50 years. Ordinary books were printed in a type which could not be quarrelled with very much, bat they should not try to make the paper look dear when it was cheap. The common paper used for newspapers was often of better quality than the highly glossed paper used for books.

A hearty vote of thanks was accorded to the lecturer at the close.


The talk was next given on November 2nd in the New Gallery in Regent St, London. This time it was entitled on the Printing of Books

The Times

Mr. W. Morris delivered a lecture at the New Gallery on Thursday evening "On the Printing of Books". The lecture, which was the first of a series of five to be given by different lecturers under the auspices of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, was delivered in the North Gallery, which was completely filled by an appreciative audience. The chair was taken by Mr Cobden Saunderson.

Mr. W. Morris, who was received with cheers, demonstrated by means of lantern slides the various stages which printing had passed through from the time of its invention until the third decade of the 16th century. The first slide exhibited depicted a manuscript Bible written probably about the year 1290, which was practically the form of all the subsequent books he would have to shown them. The art of printing on its institution was a Teutonic art, he might even say a German art. The first books were printed actually in Germany at Mainz, on the Rhine. The German printers spread themselves all through Europe adn recruited their ranks with a certain number of Frenchmen, who were educated in their school, and together they were, for the first decade at any rate, the printers of all the books printed in Europe. The next slide exhibited showed a page from the first book printed in a book form with movable type. It was a Bible printed by Gutenberg at Mainz around 1453, the year of the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. There was thus a coincidence in the dates of these two events which had so great an influence on the new birth of letters which was shortly to be made manifest to the world. The initials of the book were painted by hand and not printed. The type of the books was rather stately in form, and was afterwards called missal type because many missals were printed in it. It was what they might call full-blown Gothic. Next came a picture of a Psalter printed at Mainz by Gutenberg in 1457, and this was follwed by another representing a book printed by Gutenberg with the help of Schaeffer. This slide showed an initial B printed in two colours, and the book afforded the first example of printing in two colours. Strange to say, having succeeded in printing as well as could be desired in two colours, printers never tried to do so again, probably because it was a process of great difficulty. The remaining slides illustrated the transitions from Gothic to Roman type, all the peculiar characteristics being pointed out by the lecturer as he proceeded. Pages were exhibited from works printed by Mentelin,at Strasburg, in 1473; by Schweinheim and Pannartz at the monastery of Sabiaco, near Rome, in 1467; by Friburger Crantz and Gerring, at Paris in 1471; by G. Zeiner, at Augsberg in 1472; by Jenson, at Venice, in 1476; by U, Zell, at Cologne; by Schüssler, at Augsburg, in 1472; by Jean de Pres and P. Gerard, at Abbeville, in 1486; by G. Leew, at Antwerp, in 1486; by Caxton, at Westminster, in 1477; and by Wynkin de Worde, at Westminster, in 1495; and by Bertelette, in London, in 1532. Finally, Mr. Morris exhibited slides representing pages from "The Golden Legend" and "Troy" printed by himself at Chiswick last year. In summing up the points of his lecture, he said that to produce good books as far as the artistic point of view was concerned they must print on pretty good paper, with good type, and the type must be put on the proper position on the page. This last point was very important, for whenever they saw a book that was rightly put upon the paper, even if the type was bad and the paper not good, the book would look rather pleasant than otherwise; whereas if the book were not properly put upon the paper it would always seem that something was wrong. When they had paid attention to these points they would have books which anyone could read with pleasure, and he thought it was something to feel that they were reading a little bit through their eyes as well as through their mind. (Cheers.)

The Wigton Advertiser

The big room at the New Gallery, in London, was filled to overflowing the other night when Mr. William Morris delivered the first of the series of lectures arranged by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The subject was one which may fairly be described as Mr. Morris's own — "The Printing of Books." The art worker, Socialist, and poet stood up with his coat open showing his blue shirt, pointer in hand, with his leonine head thrown into strong relief by the oxyhydrogen light. Showing first on the sheet a page of a manuscript book, the lecturer proceeded to give specimens of the earliest printed books, those by Gutenberg in 1457 and by Shafer. One of these had a fine initial B printed in two colours, and printed with marvellous accuracy; but, strange as it may seem, the ides was never proceeded with, and afterwards a blank space was left for the rubricator. This type was what Mr. Morris termed "full blown Gothic." Continuing, the lecturer traced the gradual transition from the Gothic to the Roman characters, and showed specimens of work which was neither one nor the other representing this period. He pointed out that the printers, who had a leaning towards Roman type, borrowed largely from the old manuscripts of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. The C's, the H's, and the N's were distinct copies from monastic work. In 1471 three Germans at Paris printed some books in a charming Roman type. The example shown on the screen was from the first book printed in France. In 1472 the first book printed in Roman type in Germany was produced at Augsburg. "It was," said Mr. Morris, "a good, useful character, bold and massive, just, in fact, what you would expect a German to turn out." The example of printing in 1470 by a Frenchman at Venice was, he declared, the ne plus ultra of Roman type. Nothing could get beyond it.

Now the lecturer came to our own Caxton period. It was in 1477 that Caxton printed "the Dictes, or Sayings of the Philosophers" — the first book printed in England. Canton's type showed that he had been influenced by the Dutch. After Wynkyn de Worde, who Mr. Morris considers to be the finest printer, but a blundering editor, there were but a poor lot of printers in mediaeval times. The good printing, of which he had shown examples, was short-lived, and soon gave place to wretched productions; and, finally, there came the era of the cheap small book. One printer came in for the lecturer's special malediction, for it was in truth the father of the shilling book. Briefly, said be, the good printing consisted in having welldesigned type printed in a proper place on the page, and on good handmade paper with good ink. If this was done, then you will have a book which you can read with some degree of comfort and a certain amount of pleasure. You would be able to read with your eye as well as your mind. Printed books, Mr. Morris considers, will be obsolete in another 50 years, so it behoves us to produce the best things we can before the art fades and disappears.


The final outing for the lecture, called either "The Printing of Books" or "The Art of Printing", was on November 18th at the Chiswick School of Arts and Crafts in Bedford Park.

West London Observer

On Saturday evening an interesting lecture was given in the Parish Room, Bedford Park, by Mr. William Morris. There was a good attendance, and the chair was occupied by Mr. York Powell. The lecturer dealt with printing as an art, as which, he alleged, it had not existed after the first 100 years following its invention. He minutely explained the difference between Gothic and Roman types, and after critically analysing the various types connected with both, gave his verdict in favour of the Gothic. The lecture was illustrated by limelight views, and at the close a collection was made in aid of the starving miners.

Acton Gazette

On Saturday evening. at the Chiswick School of Arts and Crafts, Mr. William Morris lectured on "The Printing of Books." A large audience had braved the pitiless fury of the elements, and quite filled the large room of the Art School.

Mr. H. Yorke Powell presided, and, in his prefatory remarks, explained that the proceeds from the sale of tickets would be devoted to the relief of the miners, who, though the actual strife had ended, would by no means be free from want.

Mr. William Morris, in the course of a purely technical lecture, explained that it was his intention to deal with the artistic, and not the historical, side of printing. Showing that novelty in the form of a printed letter was not possible beyond a certain degree, Mr. Morris pointed out that printing was in no respect a really essential art. There had been books and professional book writers centuries before printing was invented. Books however, were an essential to a tolerable and decent life, and where printing showed its great value was in the multiplying the pace of production, and consequently the cheapening of books. Alluding to the discovery of the principle of printing in the fifteenth century, Mr. Morris said that the invention of moveable and adjustable type was completed in 1453, ridiculing at the same time the idea that type of any practical value was ever fashioned out of wood, as it was traditionally reported. As an art, said he, printing was very short lived, and did not flourish much more than 100 years after its inception. The lecturer next, with the aid of powerful limelight illustrations, proceeded to a critical analysis of the Roman and Gothic types, and after tracing the development of the art under German, French, and Italian craftsmen, stated at some lengths the reasons which led him to think the Gothic superior, both in point of utility and art, to the Roman. Caxton's type Mr. Morris thought very pretty, and it was, he remarked, distinguished for the enormous number of its tied letters. There had been a great change for the better in the printing of books during the last 50 years. The most striking example of retrogression in the art was the inferiority of the paper used, which was steadily getting worse and worse. He could quite understand why newspapers and periodicals required for temporary use only should be printed on the cheapest of paper; but books, he thought, should be printed on decent materials. The difference in price between the ordinary printing paper and fairish hand-made paper was not so great, and was not at all in proportion to the great improvement that would be made by the use of the latter class of paper in the appearance of the books.

The usual vote of thanks closed the proceedings.

Middlesex Independent

On Saturday evening at the School of Arts and Crafts Chiswick, a lecture was delivered by Mr William Morris upon the "Art of Printing. the proceeds being devoted to the miners' relief fund.

Mr H.Y. Powell, a director of the Clarendon Press, occupied the chair. Despite the roughness of the night, a large number of persons attended.

The lecturer at the outlet of his remarks stated that printing was by no means necessary to the making of books, as there were professional writers of books long before the art of printing was invented. Printing as an art, had a short life - about a hundred years at the most — from the time, when, in 1453, the first book was printed with moveable type, to 1553, when art had got very low from neglect. Reviewing these hundred years he mentioned the Gotenburg type and asked his hearers not to believe that the first type used was of wood, the very fact of the letters laying so well together showed that the type must have been of a harder material than wood. He pointed out how the gothic forms of the letters as they appear in the old manuscripts were maintained in all countries where printing was carried out for a long period. It was remarkable that the first book ever printed was one of the best ever seen, and the productions of Caxton and Wenkyn de Worde were excellent. He condemned the use of the Roman in place of the Gothic type in present day printing, the latter were more beautiful and easier to distinguish. The Roman numericals were very bad, and he mentioned particularly that anyone using Bradshaw would have a difficulty in distinguishing "8" from "5" or "0." With the decline of the art of printing Italians returned to the written books, only ultimately to receive the press again into the land. During the last 50 years there had been an improvement in printing, but the paper of books had gone from bad to worse, and wee now just good enough to hold together. There was comparatively little difference between the cost of printing on hand made paper and on machine made paper, and if any desperately cheap books were required newspaper paper could be used.

In concluding, he referred to the mining struggle, and said that even if all did not believe the cause of the men was a right one, they would at least admire the courage with which the men had stood out for so many months.

The lecture was illustrated with a number of lantern slides, and at the close a vote of thanks was given to the lecturer.


On the Printing of Books


  1. 21st October 1893, under the title "Printed Books, Ancient and Modern", at a meeting sponsored by the Manchester Technical Instruction Committee, in the Lord Mayor's Parlour, Manchester.
  2. 2nd November 1893, at a meeting in the North Gallery of the New Gallery, 121 Regent Street, London. The meeting was sponsored by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.
  3. 18th November 1893, at a meeting sponsored by the Chiswick School of Arts and Crafts, in the Parish Rooms, Bedford Park.


  1. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Monday 23 October 1893, p.8
  2. The Times, Monday November 6 1893, p. 4
  3. Wigton Advertiser, Saturday 11 November 1893, p.7
  4. West London Observer, Saturday 25 November 1893
  5. Acton Gazette, Saturday 25 November 1893, p. 6
  6. Middlesex Independent, Wednesday 22 November 1893


Morris's notes for this talk are lost, and all that is available are the newspaper reports. LeMire's Unpublished Lectures of William Morris lists the Manchester lecture as a separate talk, and does not include the Chiswick lecture.