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Discovering the Salisbury House Library's Kelmscott Chaucer

Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Written by Megan Stout Sibbel

Megan Stout Sibbel has been the curator and historian at Salisbury House since 2013. Prior joining the museum staff, she taught in the history departments at Simpson College and at the DMACC Urban Campus. Megan holds a Master’s and PhD in United States history from Loyola University Chicago with emphases in Public History and Women’s and Gender History. 

Carl Weeks spent a lifetime in pursuit of beautiful books. During the 1940s, he acquired a copy of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, which ranks among the most stunning volumes in the Salisbury House Library and Rare Documents Collection, and is currently on loan to the Art Center’s Arts & Letters exhibition.

Kelmscott Chaucer

The Kelmscott Chaucer currently on display in Arts & Letters, however, is not the first Kelmscott Chaucer that came into Weeks’ possession. The story begins with Philip Duschnes, a rare book dealer in New York. Weeks, a devoted bibliophile, was a good customer. Indeed, Duschnes’ Christmas card to the Weeks family in 1948 included a leaf from a 15th century manuscript:

Duschnes Christmas

Courtesy of the Salisbury House Foundation

By that point, Weeks had already acquired his first copy of the Chaucer from Duschnes. In 1942, he purchased one of the Kelmscott Press’s 425 editions, printed on hand-made paper, for $600. Two years later, Weeks negotiated a “trade-in” with Duschnes: Weeks received $650 in credit for the first Chaucer, and then paid an additional $650 for one of the very special editions of the Chaucer bound in pigskin by the Doves Press Bindery, and signed by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, who created 87 wood-cut illustrations for the book, engraver William Harcourt Hooper, and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson of the Doves Press. In terms of comparison, $650 in the early 1940s is comparable to $8,000-$9,000 in today’s dollars.

Duschnes 1954

Courtesy of the Salisbury House Foundation

In the story of Salisbury House’s Kelmscott Chaucer, we have a wonderful illustration of Carl Weeks’ life-long quest for superb volumes: not content with one of 425 copies of the Chaucer, he expended a total of nearly $17,000 in order to secure one of the 48 extraordinary versions of the work. The Salisbury House Library today reflects Weeks’ single-minded determination to collect the world’s most beautiful books.

Salisbury House Library

The Library at Salisbury House, c. 1930
Courtesy of the Salisbury House Foundation

entirely unexpected