Sotheby’s to Offer the Archive of Robert Catterson-Smith

On 15 December Sotheby’s London will offer 48 lots comprising the archive of Robert Catterson-Smith (1853-1938), an Irish-born artist who worked with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in the 1890s.

Comprising illustrations, photographs, letters (and even a lock of William Morris’s hair), the archive offers a rich insight into Catterson-Smith’s prominent, but frequently overlooked, role in the production of the Kelmscott Chaucer, considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of the printed press.

Catterson-Smith had been employed to assist with the preparation of Edward Burne-Jones’s celebrated illustrations for books produced by the Kelmscott Press, William Morris’s private publishing house established with the aim of reviving the traditional technique of hand-printing. Most notably, Catterson-Smith worked on preparations for The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, (later described by W.B. Yeats as “the most beautiful of all printed books”). Then a relatively unknown artist, he worked from photographs of Burne-Jones’s delicate illustrations, tracing over and embellishing them, in order to make them conform to the thick, medieval wood-cut style designs Morris envisaged for his books.

However, Morris never publically acknowledged Catterson-Smith’s role, and a ‘controversy’ began in 1898, when an anonymous contributor to the London Daily Chronicle suggested that Morris had been unfair and dishonest. Another commentator even went so far as to claim that, in his old age, Burne-Jones’s hands were too unsteady to properly execute the drawings, and that Catterson-Smith in fact redrawn them all.

Years later, a much agitated May Morris sought reassurance that Burne-Jones was the proper artist to credit and that her father had not been unjust, but she received only half-assurances. An examination of this archive invites us to reassess our understanding of the Pre-Raphaelite’s working practices as they embraced photography and new techniques, apparently in contravention of their purist doctrines.

Catterson-Smith went on to become the Headmaster of the Birmingham School of Art during the peak of its reputation as one of the world's leading Arts & Crafts centres. Aside from this collection, he has left behind a unique legacy in London: when working as an apprentice in a sculptor’s studio he was chosen as the model for the hands of Prince Albert, and they can still be found on the famous memorial in Kensington Gardens today rendered in gilt bronze.

To browse the full catalogue, please click here (lots 67-113)

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