Syr Isambrace


This article first appeared as 'A most noble book' in The Press on 14 June 2013.

While Christchurch Art Gallery's collection has sadly been in lockdown since the 22 February 2011 earthquake, the Gallery Library's collection has been used for several exhibitions at the Central Library Peterborough. This includes the most recent exhibition Face Books, which brought together a myriad of portraits taken from artist's books, and included this stunning image from the 1897 Kelmscott Press edition of Syr Isambrace.

Kelmscott Press was established by renowned English designer William Morris (1834–1896) in 1891. His aim in doing so was simply to return to the basics of letterpress printing – a reaction to the growing mechanisation and industrialisation of the printing trade during the later part of the nineteenth century. Morris stated that he "began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty..." This he certainly achieved with the publications produced at the Kelmscott Press.

The Gallery's copy of Syr Isambrace was published in 1897 and, taken as a whole, the quality of the printing, typography, decorative borders and initial letters, the illustration and the handmade paper and binding make this a very special book indeed. It was printed by hand on a Victorian Albion press and the highly decorative woodcut borders and Chaucer typeface were designed by Morris himself. But with Morris's attention to detail and strong focus on the hand-made in his Kelmscott Press productions it's easy to get distracted from the actual story to be read.

Syr Isambrace tells the medieval story of a proud and successful nobleman who is delivered a message from God by a speaking bird – he has become too proud. The bird delivers an ultimatum. He can remain wealthy in his youth but suffer the life of a beggar in his old age, or the other way round. When Syr Isambrace selects impoverishment as a youth things immediately begin to go badly for him. Separated from his wife and children he loses everything he owns. He goes through life as a peasant until in his later years he is reunited with his family and inherits a vast kingdom. The wonderful wood-cut accompanying the title page is by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and depicts the moment when Syr Isambrace receives his message from the bird; ominously his house is seen burning in the background. Syr Isambrace is a stunning example of the book arts and one of the true highlights of Christchurch Art Gallery's Robert and Barbara Stewart Library and Archives.