Tag Archives: Kelmscott Press

Robert Proctor, William Morris and the mysterious death of ‘the great bibliographer’

Exploring our large collection of books by the Kelmscott Press, I was intrigued to discover a set of proofs from The golden legend, printed by William Morris in 1892 and featuring manuscript corrections by Morris himself. This unique volume also includes the personal bookplate of a former owner, a man named Proctor, and the following note: “Given by Mrs. Proctor in memory of William Morris & of her son Robert Proctor”.

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Robert George Collier Proctor (1868-1903) was a bibliographer and book collector who is primarily remembered for two very different reasons: firstly, for his revolutionary rearrangement of the incunabula in the British Museum, based on the way in which printing technology spread through Europe in the 15th century; and secondly, for the unsolved mystery which surrounds his disappearance in September 1903.

Proctor

Proctor’s method, now referred to as ‘Proctor order’, arranges incunabula (books printed before 1501) by country and city, and then by printer and edition. His development of this scheme for the British Museum and Bodleian Library collections radically advanced the study of early printing, earning Proctor the title of ‘the great bibliographer’.

IMG_1381Proctor was a fanatical follower of William Morris, who he first met in 1894, and an avid collector of books and ephemera from the Kelmscott Press, established by Morris in 1891 with the aim of showing that the high standards of medieval book production could be reproduced by skilled craftsmen in the present. Books produced by the Kelmscott Press were modelled on the incunabula of the 15th century, which perhaps accounts for Proctor’s great interest in Morris.

Throughout his life, Proctor had enjoyed taking long walking holidays, often with his mother who accompanied him until well into her seventies. IMG_1386However, on 29 August 1903 Proctor left London without her for a solitary tour of the Austrian Alps. The trip was scheduled to last three weeks and he wrote to his mother each day until 5 September, when Proctor told her not to expect another letter for some time. He was never seen again. Weeks later, Mrs Proctor, worried that she had not heard from her son, tried to arrange a search of the area but it was too late. No body was ever recovered and it was presumed that Proctor had perished in the mountains after losing his footing and falling down a crevasse.

Some people, including his friend and fellow collector Sydney Cockerell, believed that Proctor had committed suicide. Proctor’s diaries suggest that he was suffering depression due to failing eyesight and impending blindness. The day before Proctor left for the mountains, he wrote out a list of ‘wishes and bequests’, possibly the clearest indication that he did not plan to return.

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A handwritten letter from Cockerell accompanies another of our unique Kelmscott items, a volume of cancelled pages from The sundering flood: “… Mrs Proctor, the mother of Robert Proctor of the British Museum who was lost in the Tirol last September, asks me to send you these two books for the Library of the City of Cardiff”. The ‘great bibliographer’ was just 35 years old when he died, but he achieved much in his short life and his ‘Proctor order’ is still followed today in the major collections of the world.

Sources:
Bowman, J.H. (ed.), A critical edition of the private diaries of Robert Proctor: The life of a librarian at the British Museum. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston  Queenston  Lampeter, 2010.
Downes, Michael, People from the past: Robert Proctor (1868-1903), http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/robert-proctor.html, 2011

Unexpected opportunity for a cataloguer

Karen Pierce has written about her experience of curating our new Special Collections and Archives exhibition on “King Arthur in Britain”.

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This week sees the ‘unveiling’ of an exhibition in SCOLAR our special collections department on the subject of Arthur: King of the Britons.  I’m really excited about it because I have had an integral part in the curating of it.  This is one of those ‘unexpected opportunities’ that I didn’t actually manage to talk about in my presentation at the CILIP CIG conference on 11th September because I over ran and had to skip it!

The opportunity came about for two reasons.  Firstly, my job now involves working on the Cardiff Rare Books Collection one day a week, alongside our Rare books cataloguer.  I was familiar with the collection anyway, due to taking part in the listing of material prior to acquisition from the public library.  Secondly, over the last couple of years I’ve taken a few evening classes with the University’s adult education department, purely because they sounded really interesting…

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A true collector of the Kelmscott Press

As I was happily working away on some of our Kelmscott Press books, I discovered this wonderfully detailed bookplate in a copy of William Morris’s The roots of the mountains. Although we have yet to learn the identity of Robert Hall, the plate certainly suggests that he was an enthusiastic collector of Kelmscott publications.

On the library table are copies of several well-known Kelmscott works, including  William Morris’s The glittering plain and his 1895 translation of Beowulf. All the books are clearly bound in the distinctive Kelmscott full limp vellum tied with silk ribbons; The wood beyond the world is open to show a Morris-designed woodcut border and frontispiece.

Leaning against the bookcase is a copy of the 1896 edition of Chaucer, the most important publication from the Kelmscott Press and arguably the greatest of all the private press books. If this delightful bookplate provides us with an accurate glimpse into Robert Hall’s private library, then he was indeed a true collector of Kelmscott.

Private press books in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

Woodcut title of "The tale of Beowulf" with gothic lettering designed by William Morris. Published in 1895 by the Kelmscott Press as a limited edition of 300 copies.

We have just started the enviable task of cataloguing SCOLAR’s extensive set of beautifully printed and finely bound private press books. The Cardiff Rare Books Collection contains several thousand of these works, produced by fine presses such as the Kelmscott Press, Essex House Press, Golden Cockerel, Ashendene and Doves Press. Many smaller British presses are also represented in the collection, as is the work of private presses in Europe and the United States, with examples from the Bremer Presse in Munich and the New York’s Harbor Press.

Walt Whitman's "Song of the Broad-axe" with woodcuts by Wharton Esherick (Centaur Press, 1924)

The private press movement flourished at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning in 1890 with the founding of the Kelmscott Press by William Morris. An offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement, which advocated fine craftsmanship and high quality materials over mechanized mass production, the private presses produced books using traditional printing and binding methods, with an emphasis on the book as a work of art as well a source of information.
Morris himself was greatly inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts and the Kelmscott style of fine presswork was to have considerable influence on the work of later presses such as Ashendene and Doves.

Pages from "The tale of Beowulf" (Kelmscott Press, 1895)