Washington University Libraries Special Collections presents a new exhibit, “The Influence of Medieval Design on the Arts and Crafts Movement,” curated by practicum student Natalie Whitaker and on display in Special Collections, Olin Library.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work with two incredibly unique collections in the Washington University Libraries Special Collections department at Olin Library: the Triple Crown Collection and the Eric Gill Collection. These two collections hold a priceless compilation of fine, private press books, printing ephemera, drawings, and woodblocks that are representative of the English Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The English Arts and Crafts movement began as a reaction to the perceived fragmentation of life caused by the industrialization of the Victorian period. Inspired by the desire to return to a simpler, pastoral life and natural beauty, artists, designers, and craftsmen, such as the renowned William Morris, sought to emulate the art of the medieval period. One such manifestation of this was the creation of fine press books created to reflect the same artfulness and craftsmanship of medieval manuscripts and early printed books.
From June through July, I worked with these collections as part of a practicum in which the final project was to curate an exhibit. As a medievalist intrigued by the effect of medievalism on later periods, I was most interested in looking at how we could trace the influence of medieval art and design from the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s to the modern Art Deco designs of Eric Gill and the Golden Cockerel Press of the 1930s. So often, the medieval period is denigrated as dark and dreary, yet these collections are proof of how beautiful medieval artistry continues to influence Modern art, book design, and even typefaces.
I started building the exhibit by pulling editions of medieval texts from the various fine presses represented in the Triple Crown and Eric Gill Collections, such as the famous Kelmscott Press’s Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896) and the Golden Cockerel Press’s Canterbury Tales (1929-1931). Despite being published nearly forty years apart, these editions reflect the influence Medieval art and design had on the fine presses of this period, from their woodcuts to the typefaces, and even the colored initials. To better demonstrate this connection, I began the exhibit with examples from fifteenth and sixteenth century printed books. Several of which are from editions that are known to have been owned by William Morris. These leafs from medieval printed books showcase typefaces, woodcuttings, and painted initials that shaped the designs of the Arts and Crafts movement. From the elegantly engraved printings to the fineness of the typefaces, the items in this exhibit from the Triple Crown and Eric Gill Collections are evidence of the continued influence of medieval artistry and book design into the Modern era.