That’s how William Morris pitched his, long-time pondered printing enterprise some time after 1888. Finally tipped over the edge by an inspiring lecture to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in November that year, our hairy faced friend gathered around him a crack team; a finely-tuned, hand-crafted group – a punchcutter, a papermaker, an ink-maker, an engraver and a master printer were invited to join the fanatical craftsman at the Kelmscott Press.
52 works in 66 volumes were produced with the Kelmscott Chaucer being generally considered their masterpiece. Morris himself designed the types, title page, borders, frames and 26 initial words while his Pre-Raphaelite comrade Edward Burne-Jones produced 87 pencil illustrations, that were translated into line and engraved ready for print.
Whether it killed him or kept him alive I don’t know enough to say but Chaucer was issued in June 1896 after a two year slog and Morris died the following October.
In 1975 a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer was produced by the Basilisk Press, following production methods that mirrored, as closely as was possible, that of the original A-Team (K-Team, actually). This time it took three years with the original volume being accompanied by a second that reproduced, for the first time, Edward Burne-Jones’ pencil sketches. 'Reproducing the Kelmscott Chaucer' is an article in The Penrose Annual from 1976. It tells of the troubles encountered by the new team: the impracticalities of using hand-made paper in the quantity required, the challenge of printing onto paper with a deckled edge, the difficulties of matting the ink and even the dangers of boredom during such a painstaking and laborious task.
During the early to mid-seventies phototypesetting was becoming standard. While they reproduced Chaucer using letterpress, the volume of drawings was produced using litho and the best phototypesetting available. That’s a huge but understandable leap from one method to the other, in craft and result. The Basilisk team went to super-human lengths to reproduce Chaucer with a spirit and effort worthy of Morris.
Now, of course, the gap between the techniques of the arty-crafty Morris and contemporary production methods is even greater. All the more admirable then that a few finely-tuned, hand-crafted individuals endeavour to keep the art of letterpress alive and relevant today.