Painted Books: Morris as Calligrapher

"The Lapse of the Year", a poem from William Morris' "A Book of Verse"

As a young man, William Morris cultivated an appreciation for gothic architecture and medieval texts. At Oxford University he launched his lifelong passion for acquiring and studying manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Morris's love of medieval texts inspired his determination to master the arts of illumination and calligraphy. He taught himself fine handwriting styles from a Renaissance instruction manual for scribes, and learned the art of gilding to add texture and luster to his pages.

For his most ambitious projects Morris ordered vellum from Rome. By 1875 Morris had completed eighteen illuminated manuscripts consisting of more than 1,500 pages, including drafts and fragments. Ever the collaborator, Morris often prevailed on his friends and Morris & Co. associates to provide drawings or ornaments for his manuscripts. flower

"I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages ... As to the fifteenth-century books, I had noticed that they were always beautiful by force of the mere typography, even without the added ornament..."

William Morris, His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press, 1898.

William Morris' "A Book of Verse" William Morris. A Book of Verse. 1870.

A Book of Verse, Morris' first illuminated manuscript, was a birthday present to Georgiana Burne-Jones. Morris's illuminations are praised for their ever-varied designs and masterful use of color.


One of two illuminated manuscripts Morris crafted of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. c. 1872.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam., originally translated from Persian into English by Edward J. FitzGerald in 1859, was popular in Victorian England. Morris is known to have illuminated two versions of this collection of 12th-century spiritual poetry. This edition is a facsimile of Morris's 1872 Rubiayat, which he hand lettered and illuminated for Georgie Burne-Jones. The Near East setting inspired Morris's use of rich jewel tones.

One of Morris's "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."
Page from Morris' illuminated manuscript of "The Odes of Horace." Horace. The Odes of Horace. c. 1873.

The Odes of Horace is another illuminated manuscript Morris created for Georgiana Burne-Jones. Morris abundantly applied raised gilding to decorate the pages of his manuscripts. YouTube videos demonstrating how to apply gilding to a manuscript can be found here.

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