William Morris at the Wellcome Library

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By | From the Collections

William Morris’s library at Kelmscott House reflected his many interests. Although it contained many fine manuscripts and early printed books, it was primarily a working collection. Herbals were acquired both as source material for designs and for practical information on the uses of plants. His interest in reviving vegetable dyes led him to collect early dyeing manuals. He also acquired a comprehensive collection of works on Scandinavia and Northern Europe, particularly the Icelandic sagas. The foundation of the Kelmscott Press and his interest in book design and production resulted in the acquisition of both bibliographical reference works and examples of illuminated manuscripts and early printed books.

After Morris’s death in 1896, his library was to be sold for the benefit of his widow and daughters, after they had made a limited selection. Possible purchasers included Charles Fairfax Murray and Mrs John Rylands but in the end the collection was bought by Richard Bennett, of Pendleton near Manchester. Bennett was a fastidious collector who, by and large, limited himself to manuscripts and 15th-century printed books and avoided volumes taller than 13 inches. He selected 31 manuscripts and 239 printed books from the Morris collection and put the rest up for auction at Sotheby’s in December 1898. In 1902 he sold his own collection, including his Morris acquisitions, to J. Pierpont Morgan, so that the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York now has the largest surviving remnant of Morris’s library.

The Sotheby’s sale, from 5th to 10th December 1898, caused a sensation. The 1215 lots realised £10,992.11.0. The illuminated manuscripts reached the highest prices and attracted the most press attention. Quaritch, as usual, was at the head of the field, laying out £3082.19.0 for 85 lots, followed by other leading dealers such as Leighton, Pickering & Chatto, and Tregaskis. Little notice was taken of the fact that over a third of the collection, 464 lots, went to a single bidder giving his name as Hal Wilton. This was Henry Wellcome’s preferred alias when buying at auction.

The Morris books were long ago dispersed through the collection and ceased to be a recognisable entity. After Sir Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936 the Wellcome Trustees were overwhelmed by the size and diversity of his museum and library and initiated a dispersal programme to focus the collection more specifically to the history of medicine. A series of 27 sales was held between 1937 and 1939, three of which consisted of library materials, and many of the Morris books must have been weeded out at this stage. The first library sale on 21st to 22nd March 1938 contains a section of fourteen 16th century books specified as from the Morris collection. In 1945 a bulk sale to Dawsons included ten of the eleven Morris manuscripts and doubtless more printed books.

Using the library’s original copy of the Sotheby’s sale catalogue (pictured above), we have identified 198 printed books, including 67 incunabula, and one 15th century manuscript, still held in our collection.

The books are now all identified in the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Author: Julianne Simpson

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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