Ferguson's 400

Ferguson's 400
From origins to acquisition: Michael Piggott
Fellowship presentation

manuscript page
Recording date: 
9 June 2016

Even historical documents can have quirky and complicated pasts. Archivist Michael Piggott investigates the provenance of the manuscripts collected by Sir John Ferguson, focusing on the back stories prior to their acquisition by the National Library.

Michael Piggott is a 2016 National Library of Australia Fellow.

Transcript

Transcript of 'Ferguson's 400: From origins to acquisition'

Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Michael Piggott (M)

Location:

Date: 07/06/2016

R:         What an auspicious audience for an auspicious occasion. In fact Michael Piggott’s just said to me it feels more like a reunion that a Fellowship presentation which is rather lovely so a very special welcome to this National Fellowship ... National Library Fellowship presentation by Michael Piggott on the remarkable Library’s remarkable collection of manuscripts assembled by judge, collector and bibliographer, Sir John Ferguson. I’m Robyn Holmes, I’m the Senior Curator at the National Library with the responsibility for the Fellowships Program and I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are truly privileged to now call home. Ferguson’s collection contains many documents pertaining to Australia’s colonial past that make this acknowledgement of country especially thought-provoking. I’d especially like to welcome Sir John Ferguson’s grandson, James, over here whose biography, John Alexander Ferguson: Preserving Our Past, Inspiring Our Future was published by the National Library in 2011.

The name ‘Ferguson’ inspires librarians, archivists, publishers, booksellers and collectors with a degree of awe as well of course as many of the users of his outstanding collections. It’s a pleasure tonight to welcome so many former and current staff of the Library, of the National Archives and other cultural institutions and friends perhaps inspired not only by Ferguson in awe for Ferguson but also in acknowledgment of Michael Piggott’s leadership and standing in the professional worlds of archives and cultural heritage. I have one special apology to note tonight and that’s of all people from the Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, who’s very, very sorry that she had to be in Sydney for business tonight and I know she would be saying hello to most of you in the room if she were here.

Michael Piggott has returned to his roots to undertake this fellowship and I might say he’s been working as hard as he must have done when he was 18 or whatever the age he was when he began a career as a manuscripts library at the National Library in ... I hate to say it but 1972. Since ...

M:        Fine year.

R:         Fine year, clearly. Since then he has undertaken senior roles at the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia and he concluded his fulltime working career as university archivist at the University of Melbourne from 1998 to 2008. For someone supposedly retired he continues a very active working life as President of the Friends of the Noel Butlin Archive Centre at ANU, Deputy Chair of the Territory Records Advisory Council and Treasurer of Honest History as well as a consultant undertaking significant assessments of various archives and special collections. And I can tell you as he’s worked as hard here as any fellow I have ever seen and been completely devoted to the cause that he has set out to research.

His 2012 book, Archives and Societal Provenance: Australian Essays attracted international attention and brought together his thinking over his 40 year career devoted to archival collections and their relationship with history, biography, culture and society. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable fellow then to undertake research on the provenance ... I don’t know whether fellow has a kind of capital fellow or a younger fellow ... suitable fellow ... to undertake research on the provenance of the over 400 manuscriptic sessions in the Ferguson collection which Michael and I have come rather affectionately to dub as simply Ferguson’s 400. The staff in ephemera have honoured Michael and me with a quirky tribute to the 400, a Ferguson badge which is no doubt set to become a collector’s item. You can fight Michael and me for them at the end.

It’s been a privilege for the Library, Michael, that you have turned your expertise towards research that will not only benefiting understanding of Ferguson’s rich contribution to collecting and scholarship but that will enhance visibility, accessibility, use and the research value of the manuscripts that Ferguson so assiduously found, collected and preserved. Please welcome Michael Piggott to entice us into the world of Ferguson’s 400 from origins to acquisition. Thank you.

[Applause]

M:        Thank you, Robyn. It’s traditional to begin, following previous fellows, to thank those staff at the Library that are left but I’m only going to thank three, the full list would fill many pages. Robyn herself who has looked after the fellows, Beth Mansfield who has done a million things including fix up my overheads and Katrina Anderson who has coordinated access to the collections. And finally, Dr John Roberson, who convened a Men’s Shed collecting seminar once a week during the last three months at his second office, the Hotel Hyatt.

In February, as one’s mind turned to the project ahead, two concepts seemed to dominate the headlines. One was provenance in the form of dancing shivas, paper trails and an art dealer called Subhash Kapoor. It prompted the Abbott government to issue an Australian best practice guide to collecting cultural material which restated best practice documentation principles covering acquisition of material at no cost to agencies. Also dominating the headlines was cultural institutions budgets. The implied message was more outsourcing, more philanthropy and smarter with technology. The digital agenda had already been stressed last year by the Finance Department Secretary championing the paperless online mode and ridiculing the typical laggard as a small person who usually wore I quote ‘a propeller on their hat’. We’ll come back to both. Stay tuned.

This lecture has two parts, the necessary context, Ferguson ... the Ferguson collection, provenance and 400, and secondly, the origins to acquisition stories case studies and separating them the lucky door prizes. Now provenance is an interesting ... increasingly, sorry ... it is interesting ... common term certainly heard in Braddon and New Acton. Think hipster on a milk crate eating off timber slabs drinking micro-brewed cider on a milk crate ... said that ... it’s a term the good folk at Beerenberg know all about. Their website explains provenance comes from a fancy French word meaning to come from. They also have a trademark registered provenance pathway. Provenance is emphasised by chefs, baristas, foodies, all are praising ingredients for their low food miles characteristics. Even the ACCC can get interested in food provenance if a Mornington Peninsula butcher, let’s say, passes off meat as coming from King Island. Provenance has long been associated with art curatorship.

Here the interest is in the unbroken history of legal ownership of an object and its custody. Think Fake or Fortune or Edmund de Waal’s Hare with the Amber Eyes and yes, definitely, it’s an archivist’s term. We too document custody and ownership but also try to identify record creators and their recordkeeping systems if there are any based on a theory of what constitutes an authentic and reliable record. It’s a powerful principle, and easily misunderstood, but very quickly consider a set of letters from Famous Smith to Nobody Jones which are eventually de-privatised to a public institution. Archivists would catalogue the letters under Nobody Jones because it was Jones who created them by filing and retention. We privilege the corporation which made the jam, not the author who grew the strawberries. Or consider Nobody Paul who lived with and cared for Famous Peter all his life. Paul’s own correspondence including letters received and condolence messages after Peter’s death have their own separate integrity, their own provenance. An archivist would never make them a series of Peter’s papers.

In the late 1990s, the Centenary of Federation Council invited proposals for life-size figures of ordinary and extraordinary individuals for a public art exhibition at Parliament House. Michael, I hope you’re smiling. It was called Peoplescape and thousands were chosen. The Library nominated two people, one representing staff and the other collections. Of all the possible staff he chose none of the great national librarians but Mrs Pauline Fanning, a legendary expert in the Australiana collections. And personifying the collections, not Rex Nan Kivell, not E A Petherick but Sir John Ferguson.

[Applause]

M:        Thank you, Erica. Ferguson was born in Invercargill in 1881 and named after his Presbyterian minister father, did arts and law at Sydney, built a successful practice as a barrister eventually specialising in industrial law and from the mid-1930s to the early ‘50s served on the bench of the New South Wales Industrial Commission and somehow won the respect of Labor and the owners of the entities where they worked. He was active in the Presbyterian Church, married into the Robertson family of Angus and Robertson fame, and some years after wife, Bessie, died, married again. By his early 20s Ferguson’s three interconnected interests were evident, interests in history, Australian, Pacific, Church, missionary, in acquiring the printed and other material that documented it and bibliography. They constructed his second life where he lived until the day he died on the 7th of May 1969, a month and 47 years ago. In parallel he was active in numerous organisations including the Australian Historical Society, later Royal, the Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales and from about 1909 increasingly interested in the work of the emerging National Library. He was not a typical collector, his collection criteria did not begin with rarity and a price tag to match nor indeed exclusive possession. He would settle for a copy if the original was not available and if he had to he’d write it out himself.

In terms of subject, geography and media, the span of the collection is very broad as many of you in this room know. He did not discriminate between any of the traditional dualities, print, manuscript, visual, textual and so on. Concerning print he gathered all manner of documents, plans, news cuttings, periodicals and so on and from the 1930s onwards and in one final transfer the year after his death, this vast, sprawling collection of collections came to Canberra. The largest and most diverse private collection ever acquired by the Library, a collection built alongside a time-consuming and important day job and without great wealth. A collection described by Rodney Cavalier in 2013 as beyond value.

Of the Ferguson manuscripts the 400 plus accessions include some proper archives with an organic quality, typically multiple boxes of ministers, the ones I call the Reverend Johns. John Flynn 22 boxes, John Dunmore-Lang, John Kinross and of course his own father. There are of course his own personal papers, that’s Sir John’s own personal papers, added to in recent decades by further accessions. But most ... most of the 400 plus are small collections, perhaps a single box covering for instance Australian literature, the home front First World War, new Australia Paraguay, local history exploration and so on. And then the long tail. Single documents or one or two bound volumes at most, journals, diaries, log books, cuttings albums and so on. A superb sampling of nineteenth century record types. Important then I sense that today, this room excluded, he is not adequately appreciated or perhaps he was and those who worked with him and knew intimately their value have passed on.

The insight in Kipling’s question, ‘what should they know of England who only England knows?,’ has many applications particularly in the post-analog age where instant online access to the details of an individual item in a collection unintentionally hides the panorama. Even more if the document has been digitised, been led seamlessly to a hit of pure content, having to transverse the seams ... without having to can leave one ignorant of the journey. But we, we can see the Ferguson collection. Where does it rank? In 2011 Eileen Shannon’s biography of David Scott Mitchell was published. In the foreword Bob Carr quoted himself while Premier in a speech where he said that the Mitchell Library was the DNA of Australia. Imagine. And then added that the biography amplifies this preposterous truth. Well it is preposterous. It is national libraries which best document national life and identity and co-ordinate national bibliographic effort and this Library’s foundation collection is the Ferguson collection. Its foundation national bibliography is Ferguson’s seven-volume Bibliography of Australia. What higher praise is there than to equate the greatest rarity with not in Ferguson?

Retiring from the New South Wales Industrial Court in 1952, age 71, should have meant holidays, hobbies and the grandchildren. Now I’m told as you get old things drop. Ferguson’s effort didn’t. In fact despite susceptibility to colds and less and less inclination to travel he just kept going. In 1964 Keast Burke wrote to Harold White, ‘I do not have to tell you that time is rapidly running out for Sir John and no doubt knowing it well himself is driving himself pretty hard to finish his epochal self-imposed assignment’. Somehow he produced three more volumes of bibliography, organised trips and transfers to Canberra, and in his 80s served two terms as the Chair of Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales. Unbelievable. As an adequate image it’s a choice between the T E 20 and the New York Public Library’s lions, patience and fortitude.

Ferguson sent the Library the occasional manuscript for safekeeping, sale or as a gift almost from the time he began the staged transfer of his printed collections in the late 1930s. By the mid-60s there was 29 feet of manuscripts here, a block of manuscript control numbers was allocated starting with MS3200 for his own papers and ending 449 later at MS3649. In the late 1960s more manuscripts arrived and in the final most valuable group in 1970, the year after his death, the total was somewhere over 400. Now I mention this deeply fascinating detail because one of my project aims has been to try to confirm the list of manuscripts attributed or which could be attributed to Ferguson did indeed pass through his hands. I also wanted to suggest any changes that I thought need ... to their cataloguing and to research the back stories as best I could in three months.

When it came to providing provenance details Ferguson was frustratingly inconsistent. Occasionally a close physical inspection of the items themselves bore results, pencil annotations, for example, of having been in a dealer’s catalogue or an auction room. And even a Ferguson’s own early cataloguing system. Most challenged my eyesight and imagination. On the inside cover of a Penrith District Hospital and Benevolent Asylum Register somebody, not Ferguson, had written 60 years in a cellar. And it showed.

Occasionally in his own sprawling papers one found a donor’s or a dealer’s letter which explained all. Occasionally he filed a handwritten note giving details of acquisition and significance, sometimes dated and signed and sometimes not. His choice of notepaper was evidence too of a sort, torn pieces of brown wrapping paper or blank Mitchell Library forms, recycled to avoid waste. Good for him. Recalling millionaire collector, Dr Aud Poynton’s use of National Health Service prescription pads for bibliographic description. And very occasionally there was perfect provenance. In letters to the Library in its files or in his own papers or filed with the item itself, everything we needed to know.

In summary, then, the provenance clues Ferguson left us in his collected manuscripts and in his personal papers varied widely. There are items I have to confess we simply know nothing about. That was found in a box wrapped up, it measures about 2.5 x 4m fully drawn out. That’s not fully in the image, we need to bring it out even further. It’s from a building, the AWA building, just been built in 1938, congratulating Chamberlain on the Munich Agreement. How embarrassing. This dear little palm leaf document the Asian languages people are still trying to get to the bottom of we think or they think it’s in the Pali language written in Sinhala script from Sri Lanka, possibly part of Buddhist-led liturgy.

This is the oldest Ferguson item, 1638 from the inventory of the possessions of John Coldham from Waverley Abbey which up to about a hundred years prior was run by the monks. You know what happens a hundred years before 1638. And finally perhaps my favourite, from the roof of Burdekin House, Macquarie Street, 1933 that was pulled down to build the Presbyterian Church and the person who was ready was Sir John Ferguson. The conservators tell me that some of them were wrapped up as order slips .. go down to the wharfs and get 10 crates of nails kind of order slip ... filed by month, wrapped up with slips of paper, the 1830s and never unwrapped despite the roof journey until 2016. There is some serious historic soot. I’ve handled it, ignoring the instruction to wear a face mask.

Now we’re going to stop because the lucky door moment has arrived. Many of you will have an envelope. In fact I hope more than 12 because we’re going to try to spell J A Ferguson. Do you think you’re ready? Beth. Where is Beth? Beth. We need you to give out prizes. Please. J A Ferguson. Do you need ... I’m sorry but the narrowing from the total has to firstly eliminate anybody who’s got a numeral, we’re only looking for letters. Sorry, sorry. Sorry. J ... J ... yes. Stephen Holt. Put your hand up, mate. A. Sorry, one at a time. How many ... we’ll just start again. We’ve got A ... we’ve got J, sorry. Who’s got A? Yes. One ... oh. Hello. F. Yeah, oh Colleen. We’re doing well. Okay. Beth. Colleen. E. Oh, I do not believe it. Margy Burn. Thank you, Emma. E. G. G. Oh, hello. Eileen. E R. All my friends are winning. There’s a bottle of Grange on my doorstep. G. Yes, we’ve done G. G. R. Yes, thank you. Oh, the first person who arrived. S. U. Down there. Yes, that’s right, there are two spares, Nat. N. O. O. N. Right, have we done Ferguson? Right. There should be two left. I can’t believe there’s two left, we ... what I thought we’d do as a supplementary is instead of J A we’d go for Jack so C? Yes. And J, A, C and K, do we have a K? This is a perfect score. Please acknowledge all the winners.

[Applause]

Now you’ve all been given .. those who’ve won ... a lovely book and the author of the book who’s here tonight I’m sure would be happy to sign it. Right. Let’s all be serious again now, please. I couldn’t resist that. That is an actual Ferguson item. It’s got a photo album. If ... in the 1890s if you were going to a slide night you needed to make your own carry case. It’s huge. It weighs 7K.

Earlier I said some items have perfect provenance documentation. An example, two years ago, direct from the family, perfect provenance, came an autograph book kept by Colin, the youngest of Ferguson’s first four children while a teenager during the 1930s. Choosing it allows me to acknowledge a life cut short by an RAAF flying accident just before he was deployed out of East Sale in August 1943. And to feature a schoolboy hobby now long forgotten ... except perhaps by Barry Jones ... and you can see, I didn’t quite get the food setting on my camera right there. Colin seems to have been quite successful in the 1930s gathering many of the A–list names from English and Australian political, military and literary worlds. Mentioning when he thought it would help that his grandfather was the famous publisher, George Robertson. Occasionally as a bonus the signatory offered a sketch and in the case of Captain Francis de Groot a throwaway comment as well. In fact de Groot made quite a lot of money out of that find as some of you may know. It had to be settled out of court when he sued for wrongful arrest. Eight ... £68, I think it was. No wonder he was chipper, signing the ...

Another item with perfect provenance is the 1816 19 farm account book and diary of Isaac Nicholls. A pardoned convict granted land at Concord and who became a highly trusted government official as some convicts did including Chief ... I like this one ... Chief Overseer of Convict Gangs and perhaps most famously Australia’s first postmaster which he ran out of his house. The item provides yearly returns for stock, details of activities on Nicholls’ orchard and problems with his convict labourers. With it ... this is the point ... with it Ferguson filed a signed 1916 note giving the acquisition background. This volume, he wrote, was purchased by me from Mr McCauley, solicitor of Pitt Street, Sydney on the 10th of September, 1916. Perfect. He informed me that when serving his articles in the office of Mr Clayton, solicitor, Sydney ... that’s the very first Clayton of Clayton Utz ... some alterations in the building being in progress, a great destruction of ancient papers by fire was made. He rescued from this ever to be regretted holocaust, this book which originally belonged to George R Nicholls, solicitor and onetime Solicitor-General of New South Wales, that is, Isaac’s son. Not bad, convict to Solicitor-General in one generation.

My next example didn’t include a note by Ferguson but a note by the creator in effect addressed to us. It involves two women, 58 letters, some news cuttings, a spoon and a five-page 1946 handwritten note which Ferguson retained with the letters. The letter-writer was Nellie Stewart, an actress and singer and in her day a true international superstar best known for her role as Nell Gwyn in Sweet Nell of Old Drury. The recipient was Rebecca Wily, long-serving secretary of the famous publisher, George Robertson, Ferguson’s father-in-law. If one mapped his acquisition practices you’d have to basically draw his family tree.

Through the letters we can track a relationship which changes from adoring fan to genuine friend. In the five-page note Wiley describes the letters as amongst my most treasured possessions. And adds these letters, though containing nothing of particular importance in themselves, and nevertheless not only the handwriting and autograph but breathe the spirit and atmosphere surrounding one who was for over 60 years the idol of the Australian public. I feel they should find a home in Australia so I am handing them to Mr Justice Ferguson for his Australiana collection. And when you think of the choices, that is significant. Judging from its tiny envelope the spoon was probably added later by Ferguson. It’s the sort of thing he did but there is a kind of logic to its presence. Nellie Stewart was a supporter of good causes, one of which was raising funds for radium as it was used in medical treatments, especially cancer in women. She raised huge amounts, needed because of the cost of experimental treatments in the first decades of the last century. The letters include fulsome thanks for Wiley’s support. Clearly she helped Stewart, the spoon one of those fundraising tokens that you exchange for the funds or the gift. Etched in the bowl are the words ... in the bowl of the spoon ... Nellie Stewart Radium Fund, 22/4/1925.

Now for the current Library staff this is the dog reward moment. Next is a compelling artefact which embodies an emotion easy to identify with, a lost dog. And as you can see the reward notice includes a badly faded photo. When I saw it in November last year it was folded in half and a real challenge to conservators given the inherent vice of its constituent parts. As for the owner, Louis Jules Nattress, mentions flit in and out of metropolitan and country newspapers or more correctly those that have been digitised and accessible by Trove. In the early 1870s teaching at the King’s School Parramatta and then Yass Grammar School, next he turns up working as a chemist in the sugar works at Wagga Wagga, in Echuca in 1889 he was fined ... I like this ... £1 for riding a bicycle on a footpath, clearly ahead of their time then, and refusing to give his name. I like that even more. Clearly a Frenchman. A year later he was like this too, he was playing the organ at the Moama Cake and Apron Fair. Soon after he moved to Melbourne where the ... in the Coburg Leader he offered ... I like this too ... he offered another reward, this time 10 shillings for a lost pipe. In April 1896 The Age’s coverage of the East affair at the exhibition building noted that among the great variety of amusements was a musical treat afforded by Monsieur Jules Nattress on an ingenious instrument constructed and designed by himself. He died in North Fitzroy age 46 in 1898.

Now obviously there are a million questions raised by this delightful object. We know from Ray and Gater people can feel deep and genuine affection for dogs but what specifically brings a man with a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences from the University of Paris to Australia in the 1850s, someone who becomes so attached to a mangy mongrel dog he takes a hundred words to describe it, from memory, and is prepared to pay a month’s wages for its return and even a reward of the body if it died. But mystery still surrounds the reward notice’s journey to Ferguson though it was typical of his interests. In an item by the very ... by its very nature, almost immediately ephemeral yet still something illustrating life in Australia. Can you imagine Nan Kivell or David Scott Mitchell acquiring?

One of the most interesting subthemes ... now I’m going to be serious ... are the dozen or so accessions, mostly bound volumes, of 19th century official records. A number document the administration of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land but also the civil administration at Launceston, bush rangers, military pay, the King’s School ... the King’s Orphan School and the Tasmanian Supreme Court. These are records of these entities. Some volumes retain their original administrative integrity while others are accumulations of historical documents relating to a particular theme, bush rangers. There are a couple of colonial New South Wales items as well. Whatever we may think now, to the Library’s credit it has never denied it has them though I’ve confirmed that today most directly match gaps in the holdings of the Tasmanian State Archives.

The presence of these estrays in Ferguson’s collection is unremarkable. Most Australiana collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took advantage of such offerings from dealers. In the case of Ferguson’s convict material there is correspondence with J W Beattie in Hobart, A W Ridge in Launceston and W H Gill in Melbourne, people who operated in an unregulated environment regarding official records. In fact when it came to that hated stain embodied in convict records the more neglect the better. Eventually Ferguson must have wondered about his collected official records. In his May 1954 address to the Book Collector Society where he described the various factors which had militated against the preservation of books and other documents he referred to ... I quote ... the loss of documents from government departments through the absence until recently ... that’s 1954 ... of any archival provision. The extent of that loss now is difficult to gauge and would require patience and ingenuity to measure by cross-matching the gaps in state archives with the hundreds of official documents acquired by collectors, particularly David Scott Mitchell, now at the New South Wales State Library.

But there was indeed an unregulated environment which allowed loss of documents from government departments and in some cases their deliberate removal for profit. That loss is others’ gain, of course, Ferguson and Nan Kivell among them. What gives this issue added interest is Ferguson’s membership of the trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales when Tasmania approached it for the return of official documents collected by Mitchell. What must he have thought with his legal brain as the arguments swelled around and ended in a very hard line? Go away. Unless there is indisputable proof that each separate Tasmanian volume Mitchell bought was removed by Tasmania’s own government officials to sell to middlemen dealers.

At the time some collectors argued their profiting saved material which would otherwise have been lost and their later sale to public libraries enables their consultation by scholars. Well part of that is true. Certainly J W Beattie of Port Arthur Museum ... which was in Hobart ... fame, used preservation as a justification. But no dealer lobbied for proper archival legislation back then and not all official destruction was unthinking. Very large runs of official records series including those documenting convict administrations were preserved by government departments without needing the help of rescue by collectors many decades before archival legislation was passed.

My last two Ferguson cases beautifully illustrate the challenge of documenting the journey from origins to acquisition. At their heart is so-called tacit metadata, the stories handed down through generations. If the Ferguson manuscripts have a superstar it is the holograph journal of the Second Lieutenant James Bernie kept on HMS Resolution and then Adventure as part of Cook’s second voyage of discovery. In 2001 the staff that put those two figures together chose of all things a reproduction at the bottom from Bernie’s journal. The one in the middle I’m going to get to in a minute. I cannot believe the coincidence but we’ll stay with Bernie’s journal, the one we used on the flyer as well.

Ferguson acquired it ... that’s the James Bernie holograph journal ... from Francis Edwards in London in 1921 for £150, about $11,000 today. Its market value today in fact would be astronomical as you can see according to Susan Rickard who produced a beautiful book about the journal last year. And of course two factors make it special apart from the link with Cook and that is Bernie was from the Bernie family and his observations were truly remarkable including transcribing music given that his dad was Charles Bernie. When the Tongans started singing he started writing.

Even so the journal is most frustrating in terms of tracking provenance. We know who created it but we don’t know what happened to it between 1775 and early 1920s London. It’s a black hole. I did start some research and during this project both Susan Rickard and the Bernie Centre at McGill University both asked to be kept informed, only to be disappointed except we do know now that Ferguson too wanted to find out the backstory and in his papers is this from Francis Edwards dated 23 March 1922. Sorry, there’s some music.

Dear Sir, referring to your letter of the 7th of December I will try to send you the name of the former owner of the Bernie journal. It came to me through an intermediary.

And I believe that the later owner was a representative of the Bernie family.

Now we’ve got a very long final lap of the oval and then the ending. My final case is the tale of a provenance letter, a ghost letter and a sketch book. Well, two sketchbooks really which contained watercolour paintings and pencil drawings mostly of scenes of early Sydney and the Hunter. Highly condensed it goes like this:

On the 21st of November 1922 a Sydney solicitor with the wonderful name of V J Rundle Miles wrote from his chambers ... in fact his address was just Chambers ... to Ferguson as shown. Note, especially if your eyesight can do, it mentions of the enclosed letter regarding the sketchbook and Miles’ comment, I believe the painter was the wife of merchant Campbell of Duntroon. Well that’s pretty specific, isn’t it? The book came from there, the sketchbook. The Miles letter resides ... some more boring detail, folder 37, box 86, MS3200, the Ferguson Papers ... most of this large archive, the Ferguson papers, as opposed to the Ferguson collected manuscripts, of course, came to the Library in 1970, the year following Sir John’s death. On folder 37 however is written by an unidentified member of the Library staff, not me although disconcertingly I have come across my own writing in some of it, added 16/9/83 followed by the words, Sophia Campbell, MS3212, transferred the pictures 1975. So it was accessioned as a manuscript and then five years later it got moved. This happens in big collection management institutions. Where the contents of folder 37 were before 1983 is not recorded but we do know that since 1970 Ferguson’s papers have been added to on many occasions mainly from material found during processing his printed collections.

Now remember Miles wrote that he believed who the artist was and referred to an enclosed letter. On the right-hand side up the top you can see tiny writing. Ferguson must have honoured Miles’ instructions written on the top of his letter to kindly return Wright’s letter. So that letter had an enclosed letter and it was sent back by Ferguson to Rundle Miles. I would dearly love to know who Wright was, though I’m chasing some positive leads. I would dearly love to know what Wright had written regarding the sketchbook.

One last point to note is the letter’s author, V J Rundle Miles. Now I’ve put that up because in the letter he refers to the barracks image and blow me down if that isn’t the image that was chosen in 2001 for Ferguson. Joining the dots we can identify V J Rundle Miles as the teacher and lawyer, Vivian James Rundle Miles who importantly for our purposes was a professor of English at Duntroon Military College and who later practised law in Sydney. Moving on.

In the 1940s and 50s, a National Library Ferguson collection slowly accumulated. Then in the mid-60s, 55 boxes of manuscript accessions already stored in the Library were formally transferred, the Library’s listing dividing them into eight categories, the last ... Mrs Fanning did this ... pictorial ... the last pictorial material included reference to a watercolour sketchbook of views of Sydney and Newcastle, 1816 to 1818 believed to be by the wife of Campbell of Duntroon. The believed to be qualification was holding. In 1969 Mrs Fanning took the same care in describing the sketchbook in a published article in the ALJ about the Ferguson collection and the phrase was used again in Library records when the sketchbook was moved ... remember? In 1975 to pictorial.

Then out of the blue a second sketchbook surfaced. Let me set the scene. From the late 1970s the art and architecture historian, Dr Jane Kerr, had been championing the Sophia Campbell sketchbook. Explicitly, in a 1982 co-authored book about the art of Sophia Campbell and her grandniece, Marrianne (with two Rs and two Ns) Close, Marrianne Close. Kerr drew on the Library’s Ferguson sketchbook and from this second sketchbook then still with the family in the UK and Australia ... it was a large scattered family ... certain they were Sophia Campbell’s work, both of them. No mention however of the Miles letter. In the foreword of ... on the left of the screen ... from Sydney Cove to Duntroon by two of Marrianne’s great-granddaughters, in the foreword of that book they also confirmed generations ... this is the tacit metadata ... generations of Campbell family belief that the sketchbooks were Sophia’s. Kerr repeated the attribution in several later publications and in her vast reference works, Dictionary of Australian Artists and Heritage, the National Women’s Artbook, huge compilations, incredible amounts of work. And here too her direct sources were the family, nothing more. Lots of contextual documentation but that’s the direct link.

As you’ve probably guessed this was Kerr’s Hitler Diaries moment. Once an authority speaks authoritatively everyone follows suit. The list include ... of the followers ... the University of Wollongong’s archivist and in the 1987 lavishly illustrated First Views of Australia, 1788 to 1825, Tim McCormick and his co-authors did so as well where they cited Kerr to contextualise reproductions from the Library’s sketchbook and added ... I like this ... to each caption, positive attribution by provenance, direct descent from the artist. Coincidentally staff from the Library’s pictures, exhibitions and publications sections succumbed to the power of the sketches and paintings. And between 1995 and 2009 used colour reproductions in at least half a dozen Library publications, lent it to exhibitions in Sydney and Newcastle, and also displayed it in the National Library’s own exhibitions. In every case, following Kerr, the sketchbook was attributed to Sophia Campbell.

In 2009 the second sketchbook held in the family for over a century was offered for sale by Sotheby’s in Melbourne. Initially assumed to be the matching sketchbook to the Library’s Sophia Campbell work research revealed ... David Hansen, no relation to Guy ... research revealed it was by Lieutenant Edward Close, the husband of Sophia Campbell’s niece and father of the botanical artist, Marrianne, who incidentally two links to Sophia, second cousins marrying, incidentally also married a Campbell ... George, I think it was ... and who moved to Duntroon in 1857. This is a perfect .. yes, from Duntroon, yes, kind of from the Campbell family and then this lieutenant who knew how to draw and sketch. This forced the reattribution of the Library’s own sketchbook and a new and extensive catalogue entry.

Professor Kerr did not ... whoops ... Professor Kerr did not live to see this. Susan Steggle, writing in 2012, a generous appraisal of an otherwise magnificent lifetime scholarship and advocacy, concluded that with the Library’s Ferguson sketchbook Kerr allowed her enthusiasm for a new field of research to overcome professional rigour. I’m going to mention Jane Kerr one more time in a moment. There was a silver lining, of course. Once something that you can match to something else gains an auction price you’ve got your own valuation. The Sotheby’s auction price for the second sketchbook was $900,000 to the Mitchell Library and thus provides a clue to the value of the Ferguson sketchbook. Not bad for a £60 purchase in 1922. And the Library continues to use the sketchbook despite the reattribution ... with the reattribution, not least three times in James Ferguson’s biography of his grandfather.

Now there has never been a more exciting time to wear a high-vis vest if I can get it on. No? I can’t. Oh yes, I can. Don’t worry. High-vis ... it’s probably best we don’t. I want to say something about ...

 R:        Wait a minute.

M:        See? We’re a team, we’ve both got the badges. I want to say something about the Library’s funding worries as previous Fellows have, something indeed linked to Ferguson but unavoidably political. It is obscene to call a budget cut an efficiency dividend; it is cruel indifference to require the dividend for no specific reason to cultural institutions. There has been no Productivity Commission inquiry, no national cultural policy framework prioritising other institutions but not the Library, cruel because there is plenty of taxpayers’ money around, we know that, hundreds and hundreds and millions of it, all for expedient need. Cruel because when the Library shows it can respond as apparently required, it vindicates the cuts. For years it has reduced services, generated income, attracted sponsorship including now for these Library Fellowships. It does use volunteers for work which frees up paid staff. It has built a National Digital Library inside the existing one without new funding, proof apparently that new funding wasn’t needed. Similarly with Trove, developed in-house and enriched by thousands of volunteer Trovites. Regardless of corporate goals we are told that technology and harnessing data and reverse mentoring with millennials are the answer, that last one by somebody well over ... the clay layer of managers over 40 are the problem, apparently, the clay layer. And of course those capped with propeller types.

What can the Library do? Start its own national lottery? Start deaccessioning? Get itself a senator? Sell space on the entire building for advertising? And Ferguson? When cataloguing and listing can barely keep up with the current intake let alone address backlogs and legacy data who can know what treasure is already residing in existing collections? I don’t care how clever Google search algorithms are, the abyss of the deep analogue web can only be made accessible by patient labour-intensive processing, arrangement and description. During my research systematically reviewing all of Ferguson’s manuscripts including volumes of material whose existence is not formally knowable I was staggered to chance upon ... well the list could go on and on ... an original 1890 letter signed by the Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, rare paper currency and upon original autographs for Robbie Burns, Daniel Webster, Aaron Berr and Napoleon’s big brother, Joseph, the King of Spain. It is not changing the subject to ask in Jane Kerr’s defence how could she have known in 1983 a single letter of relevance with its implied warning about attribution was added to box 86 of the Ferguson papers? Or ... this is the real kicker ... four years later, material on Lieutenant Close was added only two folders away in the same box.

Today, when neoliberalism is the measure of everything, it is worth remembering that this great Library from its earliest decades drew support from the community including interest from John Ferguson. In the 1920s as the President of the Australian Historical Society, later Royal, he urged public contributions for the acquisition of Cook’s Endeavour Journal and he himself pledged £50 to a public subscription fund. The Library’s foundation collection was the work of this one individual. And when in 1936 it began compiling an annual catalogue of Australian publications work had already begun well advanced on the first of the seven-volume bibliography of Australia, filling a gap the Library never had the resources to fill nor since, both private contributions beyond measure and both still yet to fully reveal their true wealth. Thank you.

[End of recording]

Download transcript 115.38 KB

Recent audio All recent audio