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Artful ambition ; Exhibit offers look at Morris' life and beautiful books

It would be fair to say that William Morris, the great English designer, writer and thinker whose work has influenced generations of artists, was just a tiny bit full of himself.

In a letter to his friend in 1883, Morris reflected on the lofty goals he and a friend had set for themselves as young men:

"We found that all the minor arts were in a state of complete degradation especially in England," Morris wrote, "and accordingly in 1861 with the conceited courage of a young man, I set myself to reforming all that."

Big plans for a 27-year-old poet and dreamer.

But unlike so many hotshot idealists whose names we'll never know, Morris actually managed to deliver on the promise of his youthful ambition. As a key figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and founding father of the international Arts and Crafts movement, his work made its way around the globe and into such major artistic enterprises as Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft movement (based in East Aurora) and even into the current work of the Western New York Book Arts Center.

One of Morris' crowning achievements was the founding, late in his life, of the Kelmscott Press, in 1891. In its short life span, Morris' press produced 52 meticulously designed and often lavishly illustrated titles. In so doing, he helped elevate the book from the utilitarian device it had become to a true object of art. The chief accomplishment of the press was its "Works of Geoffrey Chaucer," believed by many to be one of the finest book designs of the 19th century.

A copy of the hulking volume serves as the centerpiece of a compact and thoroughly engrossing exhibition, "The Ideal Book: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press," on view through January in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. The library's extensive rare book collection, bibliophiles will be impressed to know, contains all but six of the original editions from the groundbreaking press, many of which are open for inspection.

Rare book librarian Rob Alessi curated the show with smart and straightforward aplomb. He takes viewers on a guided tour of Morris' life, his inspirations and lofty intentions, his tireless work in type and book design, the collaborations he forged and the influence of his press on future generations of artists.

The background on Morris and his extraordinary experiment in bookmaking -- influenced by illuminated manuscripts, medieval woodcuts and the great books of the 15th century but motivated by a desire to move the art forward -- is more than enough to recommend this exhibition. But the real stars of the show are the books themselves, singular objects of beauty gorgeously rendered and meticulously designed to their smallest details.

The gargantuan Chaucer edition, for instance, is open to its title page, which proclaims with the bombast one might expect of Morris that we are looking at a "newly imprinted" version of the author's works. (As if, by the crazy thicket of vines, grapes and leaves that surround the stylized medieval letters of the pronouncement, that was not already clear.) The following page features one of 87 illustrations in the volume by Morris' gifted longtime collaborator Edward Burne-Jones, which all too appropriately depicts a robed man reading a book.

The exhibition, which is stocked with many more sterling examples of Kelmscott books, serves as a reminder that a book can be far more than a simple receptacle of knowledge. It can be a true work of art. And as more of our literature skips the printing press entirely on its way into readers' brains via Kindles and iPads, it's a reminder worth heeding.




"The Ideal Book: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press"    

WHEN: Through Jan. 30    

WHERE: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 1 Lafayette Square    

TICKETS: Free    

INFO: 858-8900

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