The William Morris manuscript of the Odes of Horace
Between 1869 and 1875, William Morris produced 18 illuminated books, wishing to resurrect the tradition that had faded with the invention of printing at the end of the 16th century. Among these were two Latin texts: The Aeneid and The Odes of Horace. Although incomplete, the latter is a treasure of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris included all four books of The Odes, the last of which, in its unfinished form, provides a fascinating record of the creation of the illuminated page.
The Folio Society has now produced the first facsimile – limited to 980 copies and presented with a translation by William Gladstone, better known as one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers.
The vision behind William Morris’s entire creative output hinged upon a vehement aversion to what Walter Benjamin described as ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’. His illuminated manuscripts typify this belief. Resplendent with handcrafted detail, they were a rallying cry against what Morris perceived to be the drab and soulless fruits of modern labour. He believed in the assiduous creation of beauty, both for its own sake and as a path to wisdom; and the delicate art of illumination provided a suitably demanding but rewarding means of pursuing this ideal.
Morris’s fascination with illumination began early in his life. While studying at Oxford University he often visited the Bodleian Library to study the manuscript collection; fittingly the same library now houses his illuminated Odes of Horace. Each of his ‘painted books’, as he called them, is an object of extraordinary, fragile beauty. With their intricately bejewelled pages, they are perhaps as close to treasures as books can be.
And though the majority is incomplete, they are valuable both in their sheer artistry and grace, and as records of Morris’s bid to revive this remarkable art form. The Odes of Horace manuscript is one of the smallest he created, and also one of the most profusely decorated. It was produced in 1874, and was probably intended to be a gift for Georgiana Burne-Jones, who was one of the MacDonald sisters, the aunt of Rudyard Kipling and the wife of Morris’s friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones. She and Morris were close, their friendship strengthened by the infidelity of their respective spouses.
The three completed opening pages of the manuscript combine floral patterns with human images, and were created in collaboration with Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, who painted the faces. The margins pre-figure the acanthus and vine tapestry made five years later at Kelmscott Manor, and the foliated borders of the Kelmscott Press books of the 1890s.
The first ever facsimile of this intimate, precious piece is bound in Indian Smooth Grain goatskin with gold-blocked doublures. Presented in a solander box, it is accompanied by an elegant commentary volume featuring the full verse translation by Prime Minister William Gladstone. Clive Wilmer, Emeritus Fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College. University of Cambridge, has contributed a fascinating commentary exploring the genesis of the work.