This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Latin in 1516.
Next year, Special Collections will host an online exhibition to mark the occasion. The exhibition will be developed by Liz Stainforth (School of Fine Art History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds), and is based on her PhD research.
The centrepiece of the exhibition comprises two significant copies of Utopia, held in Special Collections at the University of Leeds. The first is an early edition, published in 1518 by the famous printer and publisher Johann Froben. The second is an 1893 edition, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in a limited edition of 300 (image below).
The theme of utopia will be explored, through its dialogue with More’s text, addressed directly by Morris in the foreword to the Kelmscott Press copy. It will also be examined through the production methods and collection histories of both editions.
The 1518 edition, which forms part of the Brotherton Collection, is one of 117 volumes purchased from the library of Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden. Much of the collection was rebound early in the 20th century by Rivière & Sons. The bindings copied historic styles which were often contemporary with the period of the printed work. This was an attempt to recreate the perfect binding, much like the ideal of the perfect society envisaged by Utopia.
Equally, the reprinting of Utopia by the Kelmscott Press reflected Morris’ interest in the book as a work of art and his belief in the transformative role of art and culture in social life. In his short essay, “The Ideal Book“, he wrote:
The picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man’s life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive.
The exhibition will be launched next year. It will be posted on the Special Collections website.