Rex Nan Kivell's bookplate

Rex Nan Kivell's bookplate
Commissioning a collector's view of the Pacific
25 July 2014

Collector Rex Nan Kivell went to considerable lengths to create an identity for his burgeoning collection of books, manuscripts and maps. Recently, while looking through his papers held in our Manuscripts Collection, I found an invoice for the design and engraving of his bookplate dated 1 May 1948. It seems he commissioned Henry Wilkinson, a printmaker, engraver and illustrator and paid him £31 10s, a considerable amount I imagine in the immediate post-war period, to develop his very distinctive bookplate design. The lively graphic image features the names and attributes of those associated with Pacific exploration and settlement - key themes in the development of his collection. Unfortunately I have not found any correspondence identifying what Nan Kivell specified in briefing Wilkinson but imagine, given the final design, that he was quite specific.

Bookplate for Rex Nan Kivell [picture]. [195-?] : engraving ; nla.pic-an11096807

Wilkinson only died in 2011, at the age of 90, so, sadly, is not available to be interviewed about his experience of working with the collector. Given that Nan Kivell died in 1977 at the age of 79 I am realising that those that knew him well are declining rapidly in number and that the edge of memory about his life is being reached.  Wilkinson was professor of the Engraving School at the City and Guilds of London and a council member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers. After the death of the canine artist George Vernon Stokes (1873-1954) who he assisted, Wilkinson began producing his small limited edition drypoint prints of dogs. In later life Wilkinson became one of Britain’s preeminent dog artists and his fastidiously produced colour prints of dogs are still sold through specialist dealers (e.g. ).   

 The level of detail on Wilkinson’s engraved bookplate and its design is quite revealing. For example, the unfurling map, charts New Holland and New Zealand (sic) and carries the names of the explorers, Schouten, Quiros, Dampier, Tasman, Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Phillip along its lower margin. Nan Kivell collected material documenting these explorers and their voyages in depth, Bligh in particular. He used to live in Bligh Street in New Brighton, Christchurch as a child and his collection is scattered with Bligh material and ‘Bountiana’ – from manuscript letters to playbills and ephemera.

The rather lumpen stack of books depicted on the left of the bookplate is identified with the names of prominent artists and two subjects held in some depth in the Nan Kivell collection and works by these artists are often displayed in our Treasures Gallery. To note them in order in which they appear they are as follows:

John Webber (1751-1793) – the artist on Cook’s third voyage tops the pile and was a favourite of Nan Kivell’s. He owned five oils and numerous important watercolours by Webber – in fact, the first item nominated by the collector for the singular status of NK1 (the first item registered in the collection), was Webber’s A Chief of the Sandwich Islands leading his party to battle from 1787

Webber, John (1752-1793) A chief of the Sandwich Islands,  1787, nla.pic-an2271535-v 

John Lewin (1770-1819) – the naturalist and the first professional artist and publisher of an illustrated book in the colony of NSW is also well represented in the collection. This iconic work is one of Lewin’s best watercolours.  

Lewin, J. W. (1770-1819) Two kangaroos on the Liverpool Plains, New South Wales,  1819  nla.pic-an2970638-v

Augustus Earle (1793-1838)   – the artist, writer and indefatigable traveller is represented by well over 160 watercolours and oils and published works, and was a great Nan Kivell favourite. He claimed one of his earliest acquisitions at a street market was the well known oil painting of A bivouac of travellers in Australia in a cabbage-tree forest, day break. The work will be displayed in the Treasures Gallery from mid-August. 

Earle, Augustus, (1793-1838), A bivouac of travellers in Australia in a cabbage-tree forest, day break,  ca. 1838 nla.pic-an2273892

Walter Preston (born 1777)   – a more obscure figure who was a convict engraver transported for 14 years to the colony for highway robbery is also featured, though is less remembered by history than those listed above.    

George French Angas (1822-1886)   – the remarkable painter, lithographer, engraver and naturalist is an archetype of the kind of figure that Nan Kivell idolised. An explorer, early settler of South Australia, documenter of colonial life, and exhibitor and publisher. Angas' interests in both Australia and New Zealand accorded with Nan Kivell’s.  His illustrations of New Zealand I am sure particularly inspired the collector. The unusual wooden Maori figure surmounting the book pile in the bookplate may be inspired, by the depiction in Angas’ illustrated volume New Zealanders held in the Nan Kivell collection.

The illustrated sculpture doesn’t exactly follow the rules of Maori carving but allowing for some artistic license on Wilkinson’s behalf the item appears to be a tekoteko, a sculpture carved to ward off intruders and placed prominently on the gable of a Maori house or whare. The prominence of the sculpture on the bookplate alludes to both Nan Kivell’s New Zealand ancestry and the large number of important items he collected documenting life in Aotearoa.             

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) – the politician, architect of South Australian and later New Zealand settlement and convicted kidnapper appealed to Nan Kivell’s interests in early colonial life and the development of the Empire at its fringes.    

Conrad Martens (1801-1878) – the painter and voyager with Charles Darwin (who took Earle’s place on the Beagle) is also strongly represented in the collection with dozens of works, including important oil painted views of Sydney such as this one.

Martens, Conrad, (1801-1878), View of Fort Street and the North Shore, from Flagstaff Hill,  1843, nla.pic-an2271531-v     

Frederick R. Stack (born 1822) - was an Army Major who spent five years in New Zealand, based in Auckland working for the Governor. He left in 1862 and his major contribution was to produce a volume entitled, rather prosaically, Views in the province of Auckland, New Zealand in 1863.   

Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930) – was a professional soldier, artist and collector and an avid collector of Maori material. He was tattooed in his twenties while serving in Burma and thereafter had a lifelong interest in tattooing. In the collection we have scrapbooks be made containing his watercolours and drawings of Maori sculpture, artefacts, and ethnographic items including mokomokai, the preserved tattooed heads of warriors.

Robley, Horatio Gordon, (1840-1930), Riwhitete Te Pokai, Maori warrior, New Zealand,  ca. 1865,  nla.pic-an10546174-s35-v

John Skinner Prout (1805-1876) – a talented British artist and printmaker and early settler in Sydney is another highlight of the Nan Kivell collection. Prout’s productive and artistically interesting travels around the colonies would have appealed to Nan Kivell who collected dozens of his prints and drawings. 

Having descended the pile of books, spine by spine, I feel that Wilkinson was really struggling at this point to squeeze more names than were perhaps absolutely necessary onto his already busy design. Probably under his patron’s influence. The prominence of the Nan Kivell coat of arms with its Latin motto Non robore sed spe becomes more important in the design rather marginalising the names of Stack, Robley and Prout. The depiction of the coat of arms on what is imagined to be the back cover of a large leather bound tome is significant, but that is something I will deal with in my next post.

I hope you can visit the Treasures Gallery soon.

Exhibition Talk: Remarkable Voyages and Scenes from Colonial Life
James and Bettison Treasures Curator Nat Williams reveals new items in the Treasures Gallery. Some of the intriguing items include Bennelong’s 1796 letter, the first known writing by an Indigenous Australian, and Moses Griffith’s rainbow lorikeet watercolour from 1772, the first depiction of an Australian bird.
Tuesday 26 August, 12.30 pm
Free, but bookings are essential