THE BIBLIO FILES
A five-volume account of Australian book collectors is a national history of the most heartwarming kind, writes Geoffrey Blainey
The collector of books is a detective, prospector, hunter, hoarder and eventually a philanthropist, all in one. Usually private people, and unknown to the wider public, most of the significant Australian collectors since 1788 appear in this fascinating set of five volumes.
Through essays and miscellanies, edited by and often written by Charles Stitz, a retired lawyer turned author and bookseller living in Albury, NSW, we peer into home libraries and bookshops and see the men and women who turned the pages.
A few collectors experienced a day of blinding light: there can be intellectual as well as religious conversions. Bernard Smith, in some eyes the most brilliant of our art historians, was, as Stitz puts it, ‘‘born in a small workman’s cottage’’ in Sydney in 1911. As a student Smith called at Greenwood’s secondhand shop in Sydney’s Castlereagh Street and found, cheaply no doubt, a copy of the 1891 edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Those pages that launched Smith on his ‘‘intellectual journey’’ were among the 5000 books that, in his 95th year, he gave to the State Library of Victoria.
That book carries his home address at the time he bought it and signs he had read it with intensity. In those days it was a parental rule to make no permanent mark in a book, as if to emphasise that the author was more important than the reader. How fashions have changed!
Joyce Nicholson experienced her conversion after reading Germaine Greer in 1971: “I could not sleep for three nights.’’ She had got married (‘‘the happiest day of my life’’) in the Scotch College chapel just before her husband went north to fight the Japanese in New Guinea, and in suburban Melbourne in due course she reared four children.
In her early 50s, following her sleepless conversion, she began a second existence, living on her own and immersing herself in feminist organisations including Sisters Publishing, which she helped create. In buying Australian women’s books she was guided by her favourite bookseller, ‘‘the wonderfully honest Peter Arnold’’. She did not like male booksellers, with a couple of exceptions.
When Nicholson, advanced in years, presented her impressive library to Melbourne University, she resolved that each book should carry a handsome bookplate, describing her as ‘‘Feminist, author and mother’’ — in that order. At one time distinctive bookplates, pasted on the inside cover, were normal in a collector’s library. Many such plates depicted in Stitz’s five volumes resemble a coat of arms
Others simply signed all the books in their private library. One signer was AD Hope, almost a neon sign in Australian poetry. “He seems to have been a compulsive marker of ter- ritory’’, we are told. In that more bookish era, when owners of books freely lent them to students, a signature was a sensible precaution.
One pleasure in reading or scanning these five volumes, which are essentially self-published and available in limited release, comes from the asides. ‘‘Nobody,’’ writes Clive James, ‘‘can know just how good AD Hope was who doesn’t regret that his full greatness never quite arrived’’. James sounds dismissive but on second glance he is offering high praise, and the National Library in Canberra eagerly acquired Hope’s private papers.
It is heartwarming to read about people who did not have much money but created slowly, room by room, specialist libraries that will nourish Australian researchers for decades, even centuries, to come.
But the big universities were not sure how to protect such acquisitions. Several insisted books should be on the open shelves so that undergraduates could read them freely. Some rare books fell apart. A few unscrupulous visitors neatly cut out valuable illustrations and sold them privately for handsome sums.
John Orde Poynton — he owned perhaps the world’s third-best collection of the works of Walter Scott — gave many of his valuable books to Melbourne University but was appalled, after he arrived from Adelaide in 1963 to preside formally over the rare book section, to see how many were ‘‘damaged or dilapidated’’. Australian Book Collectors: Some Noted Australian Book Collectors & Collections of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Edited by Charles Stitz Books of Kells, five volumes (all HB), 1750pp in total, $375 for the set Volume I, $95 Volumes II and III purchased together, $150 Volumes IV and V purchased together, $140 He called out aloud but the high officials of the university did not hear him.
Like other benefactors who felt they were sidelined, Poynton began to divert elsewhere other rare books and prints. The National Gallery in Canberra was a lucky gainer from his disillusionment. Melbourne in turn gained from the misbehaviour of others across the border.
Mary Lugton, a dedicated and infinitely courteous librarian at Melbourne University, helped Poynton in his battles with those on high. She privately said of him, “In my view, he seemed an intellectual, rather than an academic.’’ A shrewd comment, it almost deserved a PhD. In old age Poynton lived on his own and expected no thanks for his gifts, but was seen to rejoice when he received a special cake for Christmas. He died in his sleep in 2001.
Even aboard the early ships came cramped private libraries. Baudin the Frenchman had 1125 volumes in his cabin — it must have resembled an opportunity shop. Surgeon George Bass, the discoverer of the Strait, had migrated with at least 70 books, quite a collection. Many of his were neatly listed in 1800 by a Sydneysider not skilled in spelling: one book he called ‘‘Wistminster Grammer’’.
Book collecting is like mineral discovery, and the joy of a rare find emerges again and again in Stitz’s black-bound volumes. Captivating are the tiny details about the obsessed ones.
Guy Reynolds was born in a Victorian heatwave, though it was only late November. ‘‘To keep the infant cool a large pit was dug in the garden and he was put down there until the weather was more temperate.’’ A psychiatrist, son of a mayor of Coburg, he died in 1965 with the unusual distinction of not once travelling outside his home state, ‘‘though he roamed the world from his library”, his daughter recalls. His library was his ship and it took him everywhere. He owned perhaps 10,000 books, many of them bought on Saturday mornings from Mrs Bird’s narrow shop at the top of Bourke Street.
They specialised intensely, many of these collectors. Some liked to buy limited-edition novels, of which a tiny number were in print, and others collected children’s books or poetry or biographies. John Cummins, whose bookshop was in Queanbeyan, NSW, favoured ‘‘angling books’’. He admired the north shore Sydney poet Douglas Stewart and his books on
Charles Stitz, bookseller and author, at his shop in Albury, NSW