William Morris Interview

 

William Morris & the Art of the Book:
The Private Library of Jack Walsdorf, August 26 – October 14

Interview:

DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST MORRIS BOOK YOU EVER SAW?
    My introduction to William Morris came from a professor at the Library School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1963.  Her name was Rachael K. Schenk, and it was Miss Schenk who brought the world of William Morris to my attention, bringing copies of Kelmscott Press books from her personal library to our class on the History of Books and Printing.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST START COLLECTING MORRIS AND ARTS AND CRAFTS BOOKS?
    I started collecting books with a serious intent in 1966 while working in the Oxford, England public library as an exchange librarian.  The third book I bought that year  was only a part of Vol. III of Morris’s THE EARTHLY PARADISE, published by the Kelmscott Press in 1896.  I bought this from Blackwell in Oxford for $12.60.  But even having only this part of Morris's work, some 80 pages out of a total of  1,470, was enough to convince me that Morris and perhaps the Kelmscott Press was in my collecting future.

IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE THE THREE MOST INTERESTING OR UNIQUE ITEMS IN YOUR COLLECTION, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
    This is a hard question to answer.  I collect in over a dozen areas, so to choose three items from nearly 6,000 or more books in my library would be nearly impossible.  But, to your question.  If I were to limit myself to only three items from my William Morris collection they would include my very favorite Kelmscott Press book,  Edmund Spenser’s THE SHEPHEARDES CALENDER,  the 44th book from the press, published in 1896 (the year of William Morris's death).  This book has twelve truly wonderful full page illustrations by Arthur J. Gaskin, and it is his illustrations which make this my favorite Kelmscott Press book.
    Next would be a book by Herman Zapf, published in Germany in 1949 with the title WILLIAM MORRIS SEIN LEBEN UND WERK.  Mr. Zapf inscribed this book for me in his classic calligraphic hand: “J  W”,  followed by this quotation: “William Morris:  The letter should be designed by the artist, and not by the engineer”.
    For my third title, I would choose one edited by William S. Peterson, the William Morris scholar and former English professor at the University of Maryland.  It  is called  THE KELMSCOTT PRESS GOLDEN LEGEND:  A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY,  printed by the Yellow Barn Press of Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1990.  I commissioned Dr. Peterson to write a brief history of the production of this title.  My own special copy, bound in half Oasis goatskin by Alfred Maltby & Son Ltd. of Oxford contains an original William Morris letter, dated 3 March l892 in which Morris tells a prospective book buyer of those titles still for sale from the Kelmscott Press , adding “The Golden Legend in three quarto vols. will be published by Mr. B. Quaritch, 15 Piccadilly about June.”  My copy also carries the tipped-in original copy of the 1893 Bernard Quaritch catalogue announcing the publication of this title.

IS THERE ANYTHING ON YOUR WANT LIST?
I always have items I most want, and as I find one title, another quickly jumps to the top of my “most wanted” list.  Right now I would most like to find the twelfth Kelmscott Press title, William Morris 's NEWS FROM NOWHERE.   This is the edition with the frontispiece by C. M. Gere with this caption: “THIS IS THE PICTURE OF THE OLD HOUSE BY THE THAMES...” which is, in fact, a picture of Morris's own summer home, Kelmscott Manor, some thirty miles west of Oxford.

Another title on my wants list is a slight book with a short, half page introduction by William Morris to the Christmas carol GOOD KING WENCESLAS.  This book, written by John Mason Neale, was  published in 1895 in a limited, large paper  edition of only 125 and carries five stunning illustrations by Arthur J. Gaskin, the illustrator of the Kelmscott Press edition of THE SHEPHEARDES CALENDER.  This title was also published in the same year in what the British call a “cheap edition”, on poor quality paper by Cornish Brothers of Birmingham.  I do have this Cornish Brothers edition, but would like to find the limited edition.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNG COLLECTORS?    DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE LOTS OF MONEY TO COLLECT BOOKS?
    The simple, yet truthful, answer to your second question is that you DO NOT have to have lots of money to collect, IF your taste in books is not too expensive to begin with.  When put to the text, I can come up with all kinds of wonderful collections one could put together, without a lot of money.  One example only, (and an area I do collect in) is a collection of what are called armed services edition books.  They are found in many non-book selling places, like thrift shops and antique shops, are often priced at under $10.00, yet even a small collection of 100 titles can give a great deal of pleasure, and be bought for probably less than $1,000.
    As in all things related to the arts, buy what you love.  Buy within your means.  Learn to know and appreciate your local used, second-hand and antiquarian booksellers, they can teach the young collector a great deal. Use, by all means, the Internet, but with a great deal of caution.  The high end booksellers, with membership in the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) stand behind their sales and you can buy with a great deal of confidence from such dealers.  The same is true with your local booksellers.  This is not so true when buying books on the Internet, where some  truly amateur dealers  simply don't know the books they are trying to sell.  As in all things, the old adage, “Buyer Beware” hold true when buying expensive items on the Internet.  Don't be afraid to ask question of the seller, if you are not sure that what you want, and what they have, are the same thing.
    Finally, to quote the Nike ad, “Just Do It”.  If you want to be a book collector, now is the time to start, with a subject you love, or are at least interested in, and start the hunt!  Book hunting is a great deal of fun, for the fun is in the find.  And finds are being made everyday, in all kinds of places.  Every seller makes mistakes, in Goodwill stores, in thrift shops, in book shops.  You will soon know more about your subject than almost anyone else on earth, so use your own book knowledge to your own advantage.  And do it now!

ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD CARE TO TELL US ABOUT YOUR COLLECTIONS.
    A personal library, made up of hundreds, or even thousands of highly selected books, is one of life's great pleasures.  To have at hand, to read at your own leisure and sometimes only to look at your books, to touch and smell a collection of books you put together in a careful, thoughtful way over many  years,  will over time give the collector lasting  rewards.  To read all that you own is a nice thought, but you do not have to read,  from cover to cover,  each and every book in your library. Some books will give you a great deal of pleasure just by being in your library.  Someday, you say, I will get to that one.  Other books will give you a great deal of pleasure on first reading them, and some of these same books  you will, in time, return to and read again.  
    One title in my collection of well over fifty different editions, is Charles Dickens, A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  I return to this book, to reread at least once a year, often times NOT at Christmas, as the simple pleasure of reading again the story of  Marley, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and old, mean Scrooge is well worth a revisit at any time of the year.

WHY COLLECT MORRIS AGAIN, AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN?
    There were some very simple reasons to sell some of my earlier William Morris collections. The first sale was the result of my having completed work on a William Morris and private press bibliography, which was published in  1983.  I (and my wife, and perhaps even my child) did not enjoy living in debt, a debt caused by my excessive buying of too many books on a too limited book budget.
    Another Morris collection was sold  when I was,  as the English say, made redundant at age 56.  I simply needed the money that I raised from the sale of my  library, a library  mostly related again to William Morris.  I sold many books I now regret having to sell, (and I have bought back many of those titles sold)  but the money from the sale keep my head above water for nearly two years.
    So here I am, at age 70, collecting Morris again.  Why?  Because  I truly love the whole subject of William Morris, his Kelmscott press and the other varied activities which made up his very full and interesting life.  The many aspects of William Morris can be collected, read about and studied forever, it would seem.

IS THERE COMPLETION IN THE COLLECTOR'S LIFE?
    In a word, never.  You will always find some reference in some scholarly work which will set you off on a hunt for something new, something rare and hard to find.  And this something, when you find it, and order it and when you finally open that special package from the book seller will have you exclaiming to no one in particular: “Oh, My God!  Is this great!  Is this wonderful!”  This is the fun of collecting, the never ending quest for yet another missing item from your collection.

Check out photos of the Exhibit!