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2003-09, 339, Art, Diane Kraal, Print Art


The following article is an extract from a paper that I gave to the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia in Sydney, December 2003. It was part of the commemoration for the 50th Anniversary of the death of P. Neville Barnett and launch of the book of essays P. Neville Barnett. Australian Genius with Books.1

My research into the life and Japanese print books of P. Neville Barnett (1881-1953) has revealed an individual’s experience of cultural interaction between Australia and Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.Barnett’s prolific output of limited edition Japanese print books include Japanese Colour-Prints (1936), Colour-Prints of Hiroshige (1937), Hiroshige (1938), Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye (1940), Nishiki-ye: Brocade prints of Japan (1941), Figure Prints of Japan (1948) and Japanese Art: A phase in colourprints (1953).

Barnett’s life and artistic projects moved through those blighted years of two economic depressions and two world wars. Whilst his appreciation of print art was highly individual, the directions he took were moulded by the times in which he lived and thus subject to political volatility and the prevailing aesthetic of the (social) class to whom he sold his precious wares. My study was essentially a historical narrative of the private life and work of Barnett. In a departure from the traditional historiographical narrative based on public figures and public times, my research approach was to move back and forth between the private reaches of Barnett’s life, and to produce a measured public perspective of cultural appreciation within Australia, attitudes to Japanese culture and the impact of modernism.

My study argued for recognition of the significant contribution by Barnett to the appreciation of Japanese print art in Australia. However, the present article is limited to the minor argument from my study which was that Barnett was an artist-intellectual who experienced what I call “exilic consciousness”, an inner state of exile from a society anxious about his rigorous engagement in Japanese artistic endeavours.

P. Neville Barnett was based in Chatswood and then Mosman, Sydney (Illustration 1) when he wrote, designed (and privately published) his books. As a child at the age of five, he had arrived with his English parents as economic migrants to Australia. Both parents were cultured and educated upper middle class and imparted to their son a taste for fine art and music.

Illustration 1

Barnett at his Mosman home

One category of Barnett’s books was devoted to bookplates or ex libris, wherein Barnett was recognised as a world expert. His other books were mainly concerned with the classic Edo Period (1600-1868) Japanese woodblock prints, his other great passion. He is all the more interesting as he continued publishing his Japanese genre of book from the Depression years of the 1930s, through the Pacific War years and on to the 1950s. The Japanese Government acknowledged Barnett’s work by inviting him to Japan, just months before Pearl Harbour. Why Barnett did not, or could not, take up this opportunity is another story.

Barnett was part of the Sydney milieu of artist-intellectuals active from around the 1920s to just beyond the Pacific War era. However, despite his identification with this group, compared to the “average” petit bourgeois Australian of his time, his immigrant background and the refined artistic accomplishments of his family were the genesis to his feelings of alienation and cultural displacement. Many articulate and culturally sensitive persons who never quite fit dominant cultural expectations (whether they be migrants, persons born here as a first generation Australian, or those whose strong family culture causes barriers to ‘assimilation’), have already identified this state of exile. Late 1940s migrant and author Andrew Reimer wrote of this personal dilemma in his autobiographical novel Inside Outside: The life between two worlds (1992), which was drawn upon and extended for application to my study of Barnett. I have coined the phrase “exilic consciousness” to describe Barnett’s experience of inner exile.

To expand on the meaning of the term “exilic consciousness” consider the image (a Barnett favourite) by inter-war Japanese artist Kawase Hasui (Illustration 2).

Illustration 2

Mount Fuji by Kawase Hasui

Hasui’s woodblock print depicts the iconic image of Mount Fuji beckoning the onlooker to climb to its peak. Such images were used by the 1930s Japanese ‘Board of Tourist Industry’ in their publications to entice those such as Barnett to this pathway to “enlightenment”, trodden for centuries by sects of the Shinto or Buddhist faith.Barnett may have first been drawn to this image through prints by artists Hokusai (“36 Views of Mt Fuji”) and Harunobu; or a haiku poem by Basho, “If I could bundle/Fuji’s breezes back to town/What a souvenir!”. This poem articulates not only the rewards for contemplation of Fuji, but also identifies the urge to experience and transport part of that engagement home to share with others.

The bare and frozen foothills pose a challenge to any pilgrim, and their sheer drop into the sea create another barrier to the mountain. This could be symbolic of the pain of earthly existence before the passage to Nirvana, which promises freedom from pain, worry, and the external world.

Hasui’s foreground of blue water, and its passage through the red wooden torii are an irresistible combination. Barnett responded to this idyll from his own tyranny of distance and time, and souvenired these images through the prints in his books. It provided his imaginative escape from the predictability of Chatswood’s north shore line, a respite from financial worries, a reprieve from incapacitating afflictions, a counter to the low-brow taste of his wife, and an antidote for the “uncultured climate” of Australia of the 1930s.

My study of Barnett presented three aspects of his exilic experience, which were supported by references to books, letters and poems. Firstly his artistic obsession with Japanese woodblock prints was distilled by the following factors: the influence of antecedent orientalist writers; his health related bouts of immobilising incapacitation and isolation; his single-mindedness strengthened by his strict adherence to Christian Science; and the ego-stroking sponsorship by a Japanese Government entity.

The unravelling of the Barnett enigma provided the second aspect of the causes for his exilic state. His personal traits were found to include a penchant for artistic experimentation, as reflected in his Hiroshige books of the 1930’s (Illustrations 3 and 4), and a crisis of confidence (his return to the topic of bookplates through his 1950 Australian Bookplates). These enigmatic personal characteristics gave impetus to his seeking exilic respite. Finally, my study showed that Barnett’s change to a state of exilic consciousness can be linked to his crisis of choice between artistic purity and economic survival.

Barnett’s medley of Japanese print books excited my interest not only as examples of fine and rare books, but also because their creation collided with the Pacific War. The optimism and enthusiasm of Barnett’s letters from the pre-war years lapsed into disillusionment due to impecuniosity and ill health. The Depressions and World Wars of the early twentieth century, and Australia’s geographical isolation were the shackles that Barnett needed to wrestle with in the pursuit of his artistic quests. Barnett worked within a particular tradition of amateur scholarship, which commenced well before the post-Pacific War explosion in the number of monographs about Japan researched by professional scholars. It is my view that Barnett should be accepted in the context of the “romantic” language and “timeless” images endemic to the study of Japan in his era.

Illustration 3

Hiroshige, Sydney: Beacon Press, 1938

Illustration 4

Colour Prints of Hiroshige, Sydney: Beacon Press, 1937


1 Mark J. Ferson, ed. P. Neville Barnett. Australian Genius with Books (Sydney: Book Collectors’ Society of Australia, 2003).

2 Diane Kraal, “P.Neville Barnett and his Japanese Print Books 1936-1953”(PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 2002).

3 The Board of Tourist Industry series of publications included: Miyoshi Manabu. Sakura. Japanese Cherry, Tourist Library Series no.3 (Tokyo: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways, 1934); Noguchi Yone. Hiroshige and Japanese Landscape, Tourist Library Series no.5 (Tokyo: Maruzen Co. Ltd, 1936); and T. Tamura, The Scenery of Japan, Tourist Library Series no.18 (Tokyo: Maruzen Co. Ltd, 1937).


For those readers of Biblionews with access to the article by James R. Dickson, “P Neville Barnett- a Successful Conclusion,” Biblionews and Australian Notes and Queries, Vol. 11, No. 3, September (1986): pp.72-76, here is the table from his article with my additions:

Location of the 11 Copies of Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye, Sydney, Beacon Press (1940) and the 17 copies of Nishiki-ye: Brocade prints of Japan, Sydney, Beacon Press, (1941).

Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye (1940).

Group of One

**Number One Held by Collector (Barbara Barnett’s presentation copy).

Group of One

Number One Perhaps this was dedicatee Alfred J. Moore’s copy?

Group of Two

Number One State Library of Victoria .

Number Two Ballieu Library, University of Melbourne.

Group of Three

**Number One Australian National Library.

**Number Two Donated by Mabel McQueen to the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library.

Number Three Held by Collector.

Group of Four

Number One Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Number Two New York Public Library.

**Number Three Held by Collector (sold privately by J. Dickson.)

Number Four Held by Collector.

Nishiki-ye: Brocade prints of Japan (1941).

1st Group of Three

Number One Held by Collector.

Number Two Held by Collector.

Number Three Purchased by Berkelouw Booksellers at an auction; subsequently went to USA.

2nd Group of Three

Number One State Library of Victoria.

Number Two Australia National Library.

Number Three Held by Collector.

Group of Four

**Number One Donated by Mabel McQueen to the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library.

Number Two Mitchell Library, NSW State Library.

Number Three Held by Collector.

Number Four Held by Collector.

Group of Five

Number One Australian National University Library (formerly held by Sir Marcus Clark).

Number Two Held by Collector.

Number Three Held by Collector.

**Number Four Held by Collector (Barbara Barnett’s presentation copy).

Number Five New York Public Library.

**Number Five A  Formerly Barnett personal copy, held by Collector.

**Author’s Proof Copy Formerly Barnett copy (sold privately by J. Dickson).

What has happened to dedicatee George Corey’s copy of Nishikiye?

Who holds the Philip Barnett presentation copy of Nishiki-ye stolen in 1943?



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