Australian Book Collections: Book collecting revisited. Photo: supplied Endlessly fascinating: Charles Stitz at his bookshop in Albury, NSW. Photo: Supplied
AUSTRALIAN BOOK COLLECTORS. A – I, J – Z. Edited by Charles Stitz. Books of Kells and Green Olive Press. 2013. 859pp. $150. Two-volume set.
Reviewer: COLIN STEELE
Australian Book Collectors (2010), with another substantial and impressive contribution to Australian book collecting history.
The two volumes provide biographical and collecting details of 125 individuals, Australian by birth, migration or association, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Entries are supplemented by colour and black and white illustrations, especially of individuals, books and book plates.
Stitz, a retired lawyer and Albury antiquarian bookseller, writes, “Books seem to me to be a reflection of the human condition … To me, the process of discovering and recording or re-recording the lives of the collectors and the stories of their collections is endlessly fascinating.”
The contributors document a number of fascinating collectors. James Errol Scarlett, who has written books on Queanbeyan and Gundaroo, is covered by nearly 20 pages of autobiographical memoir. Scarlett poignantly concludes his piece with the problems of having to down-size a collection in readiness to move into a retirement village.
Scarlett also dislikes “haggling” with book dealers over the disposal of books, comparing it to “selling a cat or child with an eye to profit”. Antiquarian bookdealers themselves are usually not significant collectors for a number of reasons. Cooma born, Bruce Llewellyn Evans (1905-1989), described in his entry as “a bloodless humorous character”, used to collect private libraries by the yard, using a tape-measure, but he also had a significant personal collection, which was sold at a major Gaston Renard 1989 auction.
Some biographical entries are relatively short, compared to Scarlett’s, as the available evidence is relatively scant, often being restricted to details in an auction catalogue. Stitz himself contributes a significant number of entries, but he also draws on booksellers, librarians, literary scholars and historians. Well-known contributors include Robert Holden, Donald Kerr, Wallace Kirsop and from Canberra, Stephanie Owen Reeder, Gary Kent and Geoffrey Burkhardt.
Professor Kirsop indicates in his preface that there is rich material to be mined from the 125 entries, for example, in the study of “transnational” book history and the mechanisms of the antiquarian trade between the northern hemisphere and Australia. The entries reveal that book collecting has long roots in Australian history and society. Wealth, of course, allowed individuals such as Sir Wilfred Russell Grimwade, Sir George Grey and Dr John Orde Poynton (1906 -2001) to pursue their collecting.
Stitz comments, however, “limited education and relatively modest income have never been obstacles to book collecting”. Being wealthy, moreover, did not necessarily entail a lavish lifestyle. We learn from Poynton’s extensive entry that, in later life, he lived very frugally and that he used his NHS prescription pads as bibliographical notepaper since they provided copies in triplicate. Poynton’s endowments of the University of Melbourne Library and the National Gallery of Australia were “extraordinary” in their munificence.
Stitz acknowledges the lack of women collectors, just five in this compendium, against four in the first. This fact has many economic and social reasons and was not restricted to Australia. Two of the women who do appear are Louise Hanson-Dyer (1884-1962) and Nancye Enid Kent (1918-2011). Contemporary collectors include Robert Edwards, David Ross McPhee and Canberra’s Alan Ives, the latter entry based on an extensive interview by Gary Kent. Ives is quoted as having more than several hundred thousand items irrespective of his map, book catalogue and paintings collections, which not unsurprisingly, has “taken over much of the available living space”. One is reminded of the complaint of Sir Thomas Phillipps’ wife, who said in 1870 that she had been “booked” out of her bedroom.
Subject material is not restricted to Australiana. Ron Graham (1908-1979), a Sydney businessman and company director, built up one of the finest collections of SF and fantasy in the world, which is now part of the University of Sydney Fisher Library’s collection. It is is entirely appropriate that Graham’s entry is written by Pauline Dickinson, former collection manager of the Fisher Library.
Benedetto Haneman’s (1923-2001) collection on Spain and Cervantes, then reputed to be the third largest collection at the time in the world, went to the State Library of NSW in 1977. Three contributors, including Susan Tomkins and Gerard Windsor, capture Haneman’s almost Renaissance ebullience. It was perhaps fitting that the fall that led to his death occurred in the NSW State Library. Another unusual subject area to be described is Timothy Bourke’s collection of contract bridge books, which has been donated to the State Library of Victoria.
Konstantin Hotimsky’s (1915-1990) substantial Russica collections went in several tranches to Melbourne University Library in 1965. Hotimsky fell out with Fisher Library staff after his Australiana collection, that he donated between 1959 and 1964, was apparently neither accessioned nor processed. Libraries need to woo collectors, but their willingness to do so and to take in collections has diminished dramatically in recent years. This has been largely resulted from budget cuts, a lack of staff expertise and a reallocation of physical space to accommodate digital “student commons”.
The emphasis on the digital is reflected Scarlett’s comment, “The taste of the modern age is not for books, unless in the inert form on which they can be read on a computer”. Lifeline book fairs would seem to contradict this on the popular level, but there is still much valuable research print material that needs to be preserved. One notes the random dispersal of a number of major Canberra personal libraries, such as that of the late Professor Derek Freeman, that deserved a better fate.
Some scholars give away their libraries to the next generation of students. The 2013 ANU Melville Hall dispersal of the libraries of Professor Iain Wright, and part of the library of Professor Ralph Elliott, sets an example, perhaps for others. Jack Waterford’s 2013 suggestion for a collection holding repository in Fyshwick, so that the libraries of retired academics and public servants could be sifted and assessed, resonates here.
Australian Book Collectors provides fascinating insights into an array of collectors and their place in Australia’s culture and history. The three volumes to date should become a standard reference source in Australian libraries. One hopefully looks to further Stitz in time.
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