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2011-06, 370, Australian Bibliophily, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Reviews

Life: the life and times of David Scott Mitchell
by Eileen Chanin Australian Scholarly, 360 pp. $59.95

Australian Book Collectors Edited by Charles Stitz
Bread Street Press, 322 pp. $95

BOOK LIFE: the life and times of David Scott Mitchell by Eileen Chanin is an informative detailed biography of a man who has been termed, ‘Australia‟s greatest book collector’. Bob Carr, the former Premier of New South Wales, notes in his Foreword, however, that Mitchell’s story may be ‘in danger of slipping from history’. Chanin has now effectively rectified any such collective memory slippage.

David Scott Mitchell (1836-1907), Australia’s first and greatest collector of Australiana, assembled a ‘a storybank for the future’, which became the Mitchell Library within the State Library of New South Wales. Mitchell was born in the convict era and died just after Federation, so his life was, as Carr reflects, an essentially nineteenth century one.
Chanin comprehensively documents Mitchell’s social and intellectual milieus in that context, especially the influences that established Mitchell as a collector and ‘his motivation which went beyond a passion for collecting’. Mitchell firmly believed in the value of public libraries as an educational force, having grown up in a cultivated household that encouraged his interest in books and intellectual pursuits.
After the break-up of his relationship with Emily Manning in 1869, he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. Free from family pressures, and living frugally despite his wealth, Mitchell was able to pursue building a comprehensive and, in ambition an exhaustive collection on Australia and the Pacific. A young James Tyrrell eventually described him in 1900 as a ‘typical bookworm, with stooped, rounded shoulders’.
Professor Wallace Kirsop in his Preface to Charles Stitz’s Australian Book Collectors reminds us that Australian antiquarian booksellers have ‘played a preponderant role in preserving our knowledge of Australian bibliophily’. Mitchell was well served by his booksellers, especially George Robertson, and also by HCL Anderson, the Principal Librarian of the Public Library of New South Wales. Chanin writes that ‘Mitchell resembled the kind of man that librarians were once expected to be’, namely the scholar-librarian, while Anderson ‘was a modern public servant ambitious to deliver results’. They eventually delivered a superb result for Australia. In October 1898 Mitchell offered his collection to the Library, which was immediately accepted. When Mitchell died, on 24 July 1907, his collection numbered some 60,000 books, maps, manuscripts and works of art. The collection was also supplemented by an endowment of £70,000, a not inconsiderable sum at the time. The Mitchell Library officially opened in Sydney in March 1910.

It is entirely appropriate that Australian Book Collectors, which is subtitled some noted Australian book collectors and collections of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has Mitchell’s bookplate on its front cover. The entry for Mitchell in Stitz records that only a few people attended Mitchell’s funeral, reflecting the dedicated life of the serious collector. There are 125 collectors documented in Australian Book Collectors, a substantial work enhanced with a number of black and white, and colour illustrations.
Stitz, a retired lawyer, and antiquarian bookseller in Albury, has been assisted by 16 other contributors including booksellers such as Kenneth Hince, Jonathan Wantrup and Peter Tinslay. A number of entries are sourced from key journals, such as those of The Book Collectors’ Society of Australia and the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand. Canberra’s Ann-Mari Jordens’s 1976 analysis of the books in Marcus Clarke’s library comes, for instance, from Australian Literary Studies.
The bulk of the collectors listed are deceased, with famous names including Barry, Petherick, Nan Kivell, Ingleton, Stone, Woodhouse and Coles. The foreshadowed second volume could perhaps benefit from more contemporary collectors. The current inclusion of entries for Jonathan Wantrup and Kenneth Hince perhaps result from their involvement with the volume. Wantrup, curiously, unlike Kenneth Hince, doesn’t give his birthdate. Female entries number only four, although it is historically true that, for a variety of reasons, men have been more prevalent as book collectors.
The scope of inclusion is widely interpreted, so that famous overseas collectors of Australiana, like Sir Thomas Phillipps, are included. Stitz notes that ‘deciding who were, or were not noted collectors, has been a matter of some nicety’. Like any collection, there can be quibbles as to inclusion and non inclusion, but this does not detract from the value of Australian Book Collectors, which might turn out to become the DNB (Dictionary of National Biography) of Australian bibliophilic history.

Colin Steele

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