Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 102-103
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Illustrated Editions of the Works of William Morris in English: A Descriptive Bibliography. By Robert L. M. Coupe. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2002. 240 pp. $35.95. ISBN 158456079-7.
When William Morris died, a doctor listed the cause of death as "having done more work than most ten men" (15). Morris was indeed an overachiever, making a mark as a painter, businessman, poet, furniture designer, printer, weaver, and committed socialist. He contributed significantly to the Arts and Crafts movement, and his unique designs, often comprised of interwoven vines, flowers, and knotwork, decorate everything from rugs and wallpaper to books of poetry. The Illustrated Editions of the Works of William Morris in English, the product of extensive research at libraries in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, concentrates on an artistic interpretation of Morris's poetry. The author, Robert L. M. Coupe, has compiled a "descriptive bibliography" that focuses on how artists have presented Morris's poetic work through illustration. Thus the book is at once about Morris and not about Morris; his better known career as an artist does not figure into the volume. Despite borders and vignettes reminiscent of Morris's own designs, Coupe does not comment on Morris's artistry; instead, he describes volumes of Morris's poetry and the illustrations contained within.
Because of its very specific nature, this volume will be of the most use to specialized audiences. While adding to his own collection of Morris's works, Coupe was "struck forcibly" by the quality of many of their illustrations. His goal, then, was to "consider the work of an illustrator from the standpoint of choice of subject, technical ability, artistic creativity, and degree of success in unifying the illustration with the text and layout of the book" (18). His description of the books and their illustrations as well as the illustrators' biographies make his work important to those Morris scholars interested in the artistic interpretation of the poems by Morris's contemporaries.
Coupe's exacting depictions of the books, which include information such as "the first page, a double spread, contains the title on the verso, a picture on the upper part of the recto, and the first few lines of text. . . . Morris used the Troy type, with red reserved for chapter headings" (163), also make his work of interest to those concerned with bibliography. The body of his own volume is broken into chapters such as "The Defence of Guenevere," including an introduction that, like the introductory comments to the book as a whole, contains information that contributes to the reading of the annotated entries. The majority of the book is comprised of texts that fit Coupe's criteria for "illustration," followed by information on the publisher, pagination/size, and binding/contents, a biography of the illustrator, and a description and critical commentary on the illustrations themselves. He also lists details about dust jackets, paper, typesetting, boxed copies, and the styles of different publishers. At the same time that Coupe takes painstaking care to include the tiniest details in his physical portrayals of the texts, there are odd moments of sleuthing: "I have found nothing on her [Isabel Bonus]. However, she may have been of a Scottish background. . . . Isabel is a forename the Scots use more frequently than other English-speaking peoples" (103).
Coupe's precise descriptions of the illustrations themselves are as detailed as his comments on the books that contain them. Although he originally wanted to include examples from each text, this proved prohibitively expensive. As a result, any descriptions focus tightly on the details of the illustration, such as "decorated pillars support an arched roof and fine dishes on long tables await [End Page 102] the diners" (120). When Coupe is displeased with an artist's rendering of Morris's work he does not mince words: "The failing of this book is its betrayal of the artistic intent of Morris's text" (124). Such commentary is as close as Coupe gets to discussing Morris's...