Cupid and Psyche
Cupid and Psyche Cupid and Psyche Cupid and Psyche Cupid and Psyche Cupid and Psyche Cupid and Psyche

London: n.p.. n.d. [1881].

Forty four woodcuts for Cupid and Psyche with a further ten cuts of initials and borders for Love is Enough (two initials "L" and eight borders). Folio (473x300mm). Unpaginated. [1 bl. leaf], 52 leaves with woodcuts on the recto, 2 with cuts on the verso which form a single-title image with the accompanying print on the recto opposite: these are "The Procession to the Hill" (images 6 and 7) and "The Entry of the Gods" (final images 43 and 44). The woodcuts on thirty of the Cupid and Psyche woodcuts are printed on Michaellet paper. The other fourteen and the Love is Enough prints are on non-watermarked paper. The prints are of different sizes but mostly 115mm high. The widths vary between 50mm, 80mm to 160mm. The handmade paper and the prints are in beautiful condition, fresh, clean and vibrant. The collection is bound in green half morocco and green and gold Papier Marbre Tourniquet. Front pastedown has the armorial bookplate of Kennet of the Dene and the ffep has the inscription: "To Fred. Craven Esq. with William Morris' Kind regards. August 2nd 1881." Craven had commissioned Morris and Burne-Jones to design a window for Thornbridge Hall, his Derbyshire house which he had rebuilt in the Jacobean style in the 1870s.

This set is therefore one of the small number made by Morris himself in 1881. There is some debate about the number of sets of Cupid and Psyche woodcuts. Sydney Cockerell claimed that there were no more than eight but Mark Samuels Lasner has located around twenty four, most, not all, of which are complete. Only some of these sets have the additional prints for Love is Enough. Tipped in to the rear pastedown is a letter from Sydney Cockerell to Lord Kennet dated 5th October 1938 from his address in Kew: "I want to compare my Cupid and Psyche prints with yours. Shall I come to tea one day for this purpose?". The letter also makes an unconnected but fascinating reference to the Munich Peace Agreement announced in Chamberlain's celebrated speech of 30th September: "Yes, what a change the scarcely hoped for reprieve has meant for all of us!". Cockerell ends: "It seems to me that there is too much controversy in the air". Loosely inserted is a note by Lord Kennet dated 1939 setting out some background to these prints as given to him by Cockerell (presumably at the tea mentioned in his letter). Kennet states that eight sets were printed for Morris under Emery Walker's direction and given to, among others, May Morris, Robert Procter and Cockerell.

The designs of Burne-Jones and Morris for the story of Cupid and Psyche from Morris’s The Earthly Paradise are among the most important works in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century book and can be seen as the starting point for the entire private press movement. Morris began work on The Earthly Paradise in 1865. Its structure, a Prologue with twenty four stories by different narrators was borrowed from The Canterbury Tales but the poem ranges much more widely than Chaucer’s, taking in not only medieval tales but Norse myth and classical legend. While composing the work, Morris would read the stories to his friends in the evenings, Georgiana Burne-Jones keeping herself awake by pricking herself with pins. As the writing progressed, Morris and Burne-Jones conceived a plan for a “Big Story Book” with woodcut illustrations to the poems. The plan was for a single large folio volume with between three and four hundred woodcuts made from drawings by Burne-Jones. About one hundred drawings were completed, seventy of which were for Cupid and Psyche. Initially, Morris gave the job of making the wood blocks to George Wardle and other assistants and it is thought that about seven were made by them (including one by Janey Morris’s sister Bessie). But soon, Morris, thinking that he could do just as well despite no formal training, began to cut the blocks himself and there is a charming sketch by Burne-Jones of Morris, brow furrowed, making one of the wood-blocks. William Allingham described the Burne-Jones and Morris style as founded on “old Woodcuts, especially those in Hypnerotomachia...[Their] work...might be called a kind of New Renaissance”. In fact, Morris’s woodcuts occupy an imaginary space between the Italianate clarity of the Hynerotomachia and the darker, more heavily worked manner of Dürer. They are, of course, a brilliant technical achievement especially given that he was learning as he worked, but they also hint at a new aesthetic combining, as did the stories of The Earthly Paradise, the worlds of the North and the South.
Morris produced forty four woodcuts between 1865 and 1867 but the “Big Book” with its hundreds of illustrations for The Earthly Paradise never appeared. The problem was not the woodcuts but the type-face. Printing in mid-nineteenth England was, in Morris’s view, a debased thing and the attempts to find a type-face which would match the rich illustrations failed. The project was set aside and Morris slowly worked, over the next two decades, on rediscovering the art of hand-printing, designing and making his own type-face which would work with the woodcuts he had made. The result was the Kelmscott Press founded in 1890. Morris died in 1896 and Burne-Jones two years later and so the illustrated Earthly Paradise was never produced at Kelmscott (an unillustrated version was printed in 1896). Burne-Jones continued to work on his designs for the book, but recognising that it might never be printed, produced a series of twelve paintings from Cupid and Psyche for the Earl of Carlisle’s Kensington house designed by Philip Webb. These are now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The legacy of Morris’s woodcuts is Kelmscott, the Arts and Craft printing renaissance and the private presses of the twentieth century.