Student-curated exhibition highlights library's rare books
By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer
Molly-Claire Gillett (Artsci’14) has drawn on her passion for books and art to curate an exhibition highlighting a historically significant holding from the university’s collection.
A Pocket Cathedral, which opens March 3 at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library, features the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer printed by the Kelmscott Press in 1896. The Kelmscott Chaucer that Queen’s possesses, one of only 48 in the world, once belonged to T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. This is the first time the Queen’s Kelmscott Chaucer has appeared in an exhibition.
“The Kelmscott Chaucer is as beautiful as any work of art in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre or the Union Gallery, and I really wanted to show it off,” says Ms. Gillett. “I was really excited to discover through this project that Queen’s has so many books of this calibre.”
The spark for the exhibition came in the spring of 2012 when Ms. Gillett was completing her Art History internship at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library. As she documented the library’s art books collection, she came across a little-known collection of rare books related to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th-century, early 20th-century. She mentioned the collection to Gauvin Bailey, a professor in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation, and he encouraged her to approach the library and propose mounting an exhibition. He agreed to serve as Ms. Gillett’s academic advisor when the library accepted the proposal.
The Kelmscott Chaucer and other books commonly associated with the Arts and Crafts movement were handcrafted and highly decorative, in response to mass-production printing ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. William Morris, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, founded Kelmscott Press and printed works that influenced him, including the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
A long-time admirer of William Morris, T. E. Lawrence collected Kelmscott Press books. T.E. Lawrence’s copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer came into C.L. Burton’s possession following Lawrence’s death. C.L. Burton, the president and chairman of the Simpson’s department store, gave the book to Queen’s in 1958 as a sign of his friendship with Leonard W. Brockington, Queen’s rector at the time, and his admiration for the university’s contributions to Canadian society.
Ms. Gillett said she was fascinated to learn about the history of the books and the people who printed and owned them. She added the project gave her valuable research experience as she prepares to begin her master’s degree at Queen’s in the fall.
Dr. Bailey said he is impressed with Ms. Gillett’s work.
“Every aspect of the show is hers, from researching and writing the labels, choosing the books, arranging them in the cases, and conceiving of its principal themes,” he says. “The exhibition is a wonderful example of the kinds of opportunities that are possible for undergraduates at Queen’s.”
A Pocket Cathedral: The Queen’s Kelmscott Chaucer and the Arts and Crafts Presses runs March 3-April 21 at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library. The library will host a reception on March 11 from 4-5 p.m.