The Story of the Glittering Plain. by William Morris, 1834-96. Hammersmith: William Morris, Kelmscott Press, 1891. Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 33

Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith

The Story of the Glittering Plain, one of William Morris's own prose romances, was the first book printed at his Kelmscott Press. He returned to it three years later in 1894 and brought out a large illustrated version. This is the only book he did more than once at Kelmscott. Comparison of the two editions reveals many of the ways Morris experimented with type, borders, paragraph indications, color, illustrations, and even personnel. The first edition was printed in his roman style Golden type, while the second was done in his Gothic types, Troy and Chaucer, with the addition of red ink.

When Morris began bookmaking, his objective was to create a beautiful volume that was also easy to read. He christened his first type Golden after The Golden Legend by the Italian Dominican Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230-ca. 1298), which he planned as the first book from his press. However, when unforeseen problems with the size of the paper for The Golden Legend arose, Morris substituted his recently completed Norse-style epic, The Story of the Glittering Plain, from numbers 81-84 of the The English Illustrated Magazine of 1890 (Cary, 269). Troy type takes its name from Raoul Lefevre's The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy and the Chaucer from Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400), author of The Canterbury Tales. Morris regarded both these books as "undiluted medievalism" (Cary, 272), and believed they required a Gothic typeface to convey their themes in proper form. It seems he wanted such a Gothic ambiance for The Glittering Plain, and so reset the text in his new types.

There are more illustrations in the 1894 edition than any of the fifty-three books printed at the Kelmscott Press except The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (cat. 35). All twenty-three illustrations and three of the borders on pages 12, 12a, 23, were drawn by Walter Crane (1845-1915) and cut on wood by A. Leverett. None of the borders and only one of the seven frames around the illustrations were ever used again by Morris (Cary, 276). As Paul Ncedham states, the illustrations were not a success, particularly because Leverett's "fussy ragged lines reproduce Crane's pen work with great accuracy, but do not sort well with the sharp clear typography" (Needham, 129). Crane came into Morris's sphere through shared interests. They were associated with Commonweal, the magazine of the Socialist League, and they were founding members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of 1887 (Dreyfus, 73). Crane was proud of his work with Morris and reproduced a page from The Glittering Plain in his Of the Decoration of Books Old and New, published in 1896, but neither Crane nor Leverett worked on any other Kelmscott books.

Lack of unity is the major visual problem with the second edition. In his later Chaucer, which has frames around the illustrations, Morris linked each side and did not leave them floating in space, as in the present illustration and the one in Crane's Decorative Illustration. In addition, the frame directly beneath the scene of Hallblithe has a thin black vine not found in the other three frames. While there are problems with the design of the 1894 Glittering Plain, it is important as an example of the evolution of Morris's design process, especially when seen, as here, in a copy in unusually good condition.

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Internet Archive and University of Carolina at Chapel Hill and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. —  George P. Landow.]

Related Material: other plates from The Story of the Glittering Plain


Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.

Cary, Elizabeth Luther. William Morris, Poet, Craftsman, Socialist. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1902.

Dreyfus, John. “William Morris: Typographer” in William Morris and the Art of the Book. Ed. Paul Needham. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976.

Morris, William. The Story of the Glittering Plain which Has Been Also Called the Land of the Living Men or the Acre of the Undying. Hammersmith: William Morris, Kelmscott Press, 1894.Internet Archive version of a copy in the library of the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 25 December 2013.

Needham, Paul, Ed. William Morris and the Art of the Book. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976.

Last modified 24 December 2013