- What we collect
- Preserving our collections
- Building our collections
- Selected Library collections
- Collection statistics
- History of the collection
- Processing and describing our collections
One Who Has Books and a Garden Wants for Nothing - Cicero
Treasures Talk with Curator Nat Williams
Talks / Lecture
Treasures Talk with Curator Nat Williams
18 November 2019
Bibliophile Rex Nan Kivell spent his life collecting rare books that are now generously shared with Australians through the National Library. He also gardened in Wiltshire and at his mansion El Farah, in Tangier, Morocco.
Join Treasures Curator Nat Williams as he explores the gardening interests and exceptional books acquired by one of the greatest collectors of the twentieth century.
A Treasures Gallery Access Program, supported by National Library Patrons
“Anyone who has a book collection and a garden wants for nothing” - Nat Williams 18-11-19
*Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Nat Williams (N)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Thank you all for joining us this evening. My name’s Kathryn Favell and I’m the Director of Community Outreach and it’s a great pleasure to be your host for this evening’s Treasures talk with our Treasures curator, Nat Williams. Whether you’re here with us in the theatre or watching us online welcome to the National Library of Australia.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the first Australians on whose traditional lands this beautiful building of ours stands. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past, present and emerging for caring for this land that I’m very privileged to call my home. Land plays a small role I think in today’s talk.
Tonight Nat will be speaking about two things that I'm sure most of us share a passion for, books and gardens. Not just anyone’s books and anyone’s gardens however. For those of you who’ve been with us over the last few years you’ll have journeyed with Nat through his research into the collections and the life of Sir Rex Nankivell and it’s his garden and his book collection that we’re going to delve into this evening. I’m going to get out of the way so please join me in welcoming Nat Williams.
N: Thank you, it’s lovely to see so many of you here tonight. Here we go. Tonight I'm going to speak about the pleasures of acquiring and using books and the succour and solitude offered by a garden or gardens in the life of the New Zealand-born collector, Sir Rex Nankivell. Amassing a collection of books, a library of real substance, researching and writing his own Magnum Opus, portraits of the famous and infamous, and Time Reflecting in the Garden were staples in his life, particularly as he aged.
He died not at his home in Tangier as he might have hoped but suddenly in midsummer in London, aged 78, having collected avidly for 60 years. I will come back to his life and gardening interest in Tangiers later.
First, to Nankivell’s library, and that’s how I’ll describe it tonight, his collection of books as a library. The considerable scope of his book-collecting militates against a detailed analysis of his library acquisitions tonight. Suffice to say that he was a bower bird, gathering up quite presciently anything that might seem relevant to anyone undertaking a detailed study of the Pacific region into the future.
A collection search reveals atlases, lexicons of multiple Pacific languages, very early Maori religious tracts and volumes, revealing colonial Australian pamphlets, satirical scandal sheets and booklets, early government almanacs, multivolume natural history compendia, serialised works and fanciful imaginary voyaging accounts. All of these found a home in Nankivell’s fulsome library. No doubt he sat in one of his gardens and enjoyed reading them.
His purchases over decades ranged widely from works in English through to Latin and foreign language printings of voyage narratives originally produced in England. His book-collecting translate, if one roughly works it out, averages it out to be two books a week for 60 years. This is simultaneously occurring with his rather substantial collecting acquisitions of prints, drawings, oil paintings, objects, manuscripts, maps etc.
He amassed a collection of about 5,500 rare books and a further about 1,500 now valuable art books so roughly 20% of his large collection was devoted to rare books and to printing. Probably we have something like 1,500 items that exist in this collection only as copies through Nankivell’s gift or acquisition.
To say Nankivell’s library was varied is truly something of an understatement. Within it for example may be found an illustrated book, a treatise on the Hindu method of valuing pearls. I won’t read out the title. This book appears to be dated 1521 and it is inscribed, [Kulahac] 4:32, 13 June 1837 which I think probably actually refers to [Gula Hac] 4:36 spelt differently in Iran. The book does look to be printed later but we haven’t dated it properly yet. It truly is a curio, though, and does not seem to relate to Nankivell’s principal Australasian collecting field of interest. However when one considers the maritime origins of pearls and the pearl industry in Australia its inclusion may make greater sense.
Another work about maritime exploits is the unlucky voyage of the ship, Batavia. Nankivell’s library also boasts not one but two copies of the now very rare and rather alarming volume concerning the tragic maiden voyage of the VOC ship, Batavia in 1629. The voyage was commanded by the leading VOC merchant, Francois Pelsaert. These volumes explain and illustrate the infamous shipwreck and the subsequent campaign of rape and massacre carried out and the summary justice meted out to the culprits on Houtman’s Abrolhos in Western Australia nearly 400 years ago. Here you can see both of Nankivell’s volumes bearing the printing date of 1648 and they’re slightly different. He was alive to the prospect of capturing different imprints in his collecting as seen here, for what they might later reveal to scholars.
This acquisition is an extract taken from Sebastian Munster’s famous work, Cosmographia, and it examines and describes the content of Africa. Munster was one of the three most renowned cartographers of the 16th century along with Mercator and Ortelius. Munster was a Franciscan monk who left the order in Heidelberg and travelled on to Basel. He originally decided to map Germany through empirical observation travelling from place to place over time however the scope of his Cosmographia expanded over time to take in other places as you can see here.
The book was a success, finally running to 35 editions in five languages spread over 84 years. This excerpt collected by Nankivell is from 17 years later. The artists, Hans Holbein, Conrad Schnitt and Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch all contributed wood cut illustrations to the book and give it great character. The crocodile you can see here has Deutsch’s monogram behind it on the rock. I can point to it up there. In the Ptolemaic style African map please note the Monoculy which is reproduced down here much larger, the one-eyed monster which frequented medieval maps. It’s sitting there above the ship’s mast. It's interesting to note that where possible Nankivell would also collect an engraved portrait of the author as you can see here and he went on to include a lot of them in his large portraits book. I trust these examples give just a glimpse of the richness and variety within Nankivell’s library, there are more to come soon.
In March 1957 in a letter to Alister McMullin, the President of the Senate and Chairman of the National Library, Nankivell wrote, I would like to go on collecting as I am in an enviable position. Being a picture dealer and a book collector I can pick and choose in hundreds of places unknown to the lay man. He wrote this two years before the acquisition of the first tranche of his collection by the Commonwealth in 1959. To briefly recap on this momentous acquisition the first letter to Nankivell about depositing his collection with the National Library was from Kenneth Binns, the National Librarian in October 1945. The collection was formally acquired by the Library 14 years later in 1959, a process cleverly steered by Harold White, the indefatigable National Librarian and also assisted by Menzies in the Library Council.
The Nankivell Collection numbered about 25 or possibly 30,000 items by the time of Nankivell’s death. He had strategically lent at his expense nearly 1,300 key items to the National Library from 1948 and even so it still took 11 more years of complex negotiations to finalise the acquisition. It was a triumph of persistence and goodwill on both sides.
At times though the wait, obstructions and bureaucrat shenanigans palled on him and Nankivell despaired. Frustrated, he once wrote to the Library that he might just sell it all and focus on gardening and what he claimed what his home in Wiltshire. It seems perhaps that gardening was never too far from his mind. Here we can see him in The Redfern Gallery in a rather eccentric Christmas card from the early 1950s reminding people that even though he doesn’t write often he does think of them. What the ex-parrot he’s holding there is all about, I’m not sure, it’s a bit of a mystery.
Nankivell’s knowledge of the antiquarian world that surrounded him in the part of the empire was priceless. The fact that he defines himself as a picture dealer and a book collector is interesting as is his spelling of layman. He certainly collected more pictures than books in his remarkable acquisition odyssey but his collection of rare books is remarkable and was accrued often in multiple copies over time, forcing him out of various storage spaces.
The range and depth of his book collecting was prodigious and as individual items, some of which are unique or as a whole, they are of great value and significance today. As you can see here Nankivell’s spelling reveals his relative lack of education. He was self-taught in the ways of the art and antique trade and in those of his English and international customers, generally on their lead from the aristocracy business and entertainment, people with wealth who were prepared to trust this charming young Antipodean art dealer.
Certainly the funds he accumulated to resource his restless book-buying were created by his ability as an art dealer to buy modern art wisely, to keep it and then sell it, often at a considerably enhanced price while the market for modern European and British art boomed in the post-war period. Arguably he contributed to that boom in prices which even startled him. That said, in his earliest recollections of his interest in collecting Nankivell indicated that he was fired up by working for a bookseller named Smith in Christchurch, his birth place, a very long way from Cork Street, Mayfair where he ended up. His postschool training as a bookbinder in Christchurch contributed to his love of fine bindings and he was to spend a fortune on protecting his collection over decades.
Nankivell’s love of books, particularly the abundant narratives of exploration, conquest and settlement which he voraciously acquired gave shape to his collection and at the same time the collection began to resemble him. A collection is, in many ways, an expanded form of self-portrait, an extended and concrete statement of the things that one finds of interest comprising things that engage the acquisitive mind and heart and ultimately outliving the possessor if they survive the vicissitudes of time and of intervention.
Luckily for Nankivell his collection of rare books and other items, tens of thousands in total, found a safe home within the ever-expanding collection of this library. His vast collection is one of the truly great repositories of data and imagery about the Pacific, endlessly plumbed by scholars and those curious about the world and their place in it. The collection has been avidly mined for exhibitions and publications over decades, Mapping Our World and Cook and the Pacific are relatively recent examples.
Nankivell’s books include many of the most celebrated works dealing with the discovery and colonisation of Australia and New Zealand as you can see here. There are many areas of collection strengths, particularly in accounts of voyages, maritime exploration in figures such as James Cook, Joseph Banks and William Bligh, in travel narratives, settlement and immigration guides, in convicts and transportation, shipping and shipwrecks, missions, trade, almanacs, directories, ethnography, lexicons of indigenous Australian and Maori language, the Maori wars, goldfields, bushrangers, memoirs, our unique flora and fauna and novels. In addition to the works on Australia and New Zealand there are books dealing with early European contact with Fiji, Hawaii, The Marquesas, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga and other Pacific islands.
Of course Nankivell’s collection contains many printed maps as well as voyaging narratives and here you can see a good example. This map of the Pacific Ocean was created by the famous Flemish cartographer, Ortelius, who created the world’s first atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum. Nankivell’s hand-coloured map is from the fourth edition of that atlas which was printed in Antwerp in 1592. There are about a thousand maps and atlases in the Nankivell Collection and time will not allow me to deal with them in any detail this evening. Perhaps I’ll do another talk on maps one day but naturally many of the printed volumes acquired by Nankivell also include important maps such as this next volume.
Nankivell began to collect in the early 1920s after settling in London with an idea that he would assemble a pictorial database of the Pacific and of Australasia in general. Interestingly the term, Australasia, which the collector was fond of using, arose from the writing of Charles de Brosses in his important work, Histoire des navigations aux terres australes published in France in 1756. De Brosses also coined the name, Polynesia, meaning for him all the islands of the Pacific. A prolific writer on travel, history and linguistics he assembled this work which advocated for further exploration in the unknown areas of the Pacific.
De Brosses also suggested some years before the British that France should settle Australia using her foundlings, beggars and criminals. A novel idea. Significantly his Histoire features seven engraved folded maps including Australia, New Guinea and north-eastern Australia, no doubt scoping the potential dumping ground, I suppose. His work was a major two-volume set with memorable maps by the Vogundi father and son team as seen here. It’s a very well known map, pre-Cook map.
A decade after publication James Cook owned and sailed with a copy in his library aboard The Endeavour. Significantly Nankivell owned two copies of these ground-breaking volumes which reflected his keen interest in the charting and exponential growth of knowledge about the Pacific. He also collected two copies of the translated letters of De Brosses printed in 1897.
Nankivell certainly had an eye for detail and for trying to capture the full dimension of the information available in print over centuries of enquiry and publication. A volume such as this one, an account of several [late] 16:39 Voyages and Discoveries to the North and South by British Naval Commander, Sir John Narborough, documents his early voyage to the Pacific in 1670/71. Narborough claimed Argentine for the British and we know where that ended up.
It took over 20 years to publish this work in 1694 and this is another instance where Nankivell purchased two of the same volumes and you can perhaps see why it may have seemed too good to pass up when it came his way or he was offered a second copy for the library. I love the depiction of whales, it’s fabulous.
When the British Library acquired Narborough’s important manuscript voyage journal in 2009 my friend and colleague, Peter Barber, then head of the Library’s cartographic collections wrote of the expedition, Narborough’s journey proved it was possible for England to get involved in the Pacific trade which set the direction of our foreign policy for the next 50 years. The repercussions were extraordinary. If Sir John hadn’t made his trip Britain probably wouldn’t have gone into the war of the Spanish succession and there would never have been the South Sea bubble of 1720/21, the biggest financial crisis of the 18th century.
This important scene-setting moment is richly captured in Narborough’s two printed accounts now held here. This book is the earliest volume in Nankivell’s library. It has a complex Latin title and is best known as De Astronomica or Poeticon Astronomicon. In essence it’s a book of stories, the text of which was attributed in the renaissance to the Roman historian, Gaius Julius Hyginus. However the true authorship is still rather disputed. Whichever Hyginus it was they used the work of the famous Alexandrine Greek philosopher and astronomer, Ptolemy, for his illustrated star constellations as you can see here. This very beautiful book was first printed by the German printer, Erhard Ratdolt in Venice in 1482 and this volume from 1485 is the second edition of which I could only find a handful of copies recorded.
Nankivell’s imagination and interest in the world was not limited to maritime and inland exploration. As we can see here he also looked at the documentation of the heavens. He sought to document many aspects of human conquest of nature and of exploring its parameters, both earthly and celestial.
As a collector Nankivell was engaged by the genre of writing in the 1600s and into the 1700s which sought to document and create imaginary voyages into an unknown great south land. These were crafted to intrigue and inspire European readers. Thomas Moore's Utopia and works by Jonathan Swift satirise the vices and foibles of Europeans and found a ready audience. People could read subversive literature in the comfort of their armchairs and be entertained by the improbable people and creatures discovered off the coast of New Holland as posited by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.
Interestingly neither Swift nor Moore features in Nankivell’s library however he did acquire a copy of Mundus Alter Et Idem, a satirical and dystopian work. This work in Latin written by the British, Mercury, is a fictitious account of a voyage to Terra Australis and bears some interesting similarities to the work of Gulliver’s Travels which it later influenced. The title can be translated as the world different and the same or discovery of a new world. The author, actually Joseph Hall, was a prominent bishop, moral philosopher and writer who fell from grace during the English civil war and died an impoverished beggar.
Here you can see four of the Library’s copies. The first edition, NK910 is from 1605 and was printed in Frankfurt. I show these copies together to make the point simply that Nankivell’s acquisition often enabled researchers here to glean a more complete and informed view of the published work through comparison with other copies. As you’ve already seen Nankivell was not one to simply buy one copy of a book. For him it seemed two or more copies comforted him as a collector but he must also have believed that each volume might reveal something unique.
The format of a publication might vary or it could be a later and updated edition showing how contemporary knowledge was increasing as a result of repeated voyages by European crews into the Pacific Ocean. Or it could be a pirated edition with new information or purposeful and revealing distortions of fact. The number and quality of images or maps included might vary or the previous owner may have left traces of thoughts about the assembled knowledge in marginalia or helpful editions to images. This makes such a work unique and adds great value to scholarship if it can be found, transcribed and cited in articles and in books.
Today the Library’s digitisation of rare volumes such as this can allow the sharing and transfer of knowledge to occur more seamlessly than in the past. Our recently announced Treasured Voices program will allow the Library to selectively digitise more of our bountiful collections and I hope some of these items become candidates in due course.
Sometimes Nankivell purchased a book specifically due to its provenance and the history physically written into it. Challengingly the evidence presented might question the published narrative on the record and such nuances of opinion can permit new narratives to form. A copy of a volume owned and autographed by the author, perhaps with evidence of rethinking or updating, was a prize he could not resist. For example Nankivell acquired a tranche of material documenting the tragic trip to London of King Kamehameha and Queen Kamamalu from Hawaii in 1824. Their Royal Highnesses toured London, attracting much public attention though sadly they contracted measles and then perished. Their bodies were returned to Hawaii for burial by HMS Blonde, a new vessel commanded by Lord Byron who was the cousin of the mad, bad and dangerous Danoe.
Aboard was a chaplain, Richard Rowland Bloxam, who recorded the visit to Cook’s Sandwich Islands and kept a journal intending to publish his perspective on this unique and poignant event. Unfortunately Bloxam was beaten to the draw by the official publication edited and prepared by the travel writer, Maria Graham. Graham used Bloxam’s notes and other accounts to produce a detailed voyage narrative ghost-written in Captain Byron’s name. The temperamental Bloxam was peeved and in his copy of the account as you can witness here, he filled it with annotations and angrily added his name as author to the title page. He further illustrated the book with drawings, marginalia, correcting the record and a map depicting the funeral arrangement and the mausoleum for the royal couple.
Typically Nankivell managed to acquire both Bloxam’s manuscript journal and his amended published account along with complementary pictures, cartoons, lithographs and manuscript items and also bark cloth samples all documenting the sad events. Items surrounding such an entangled narrative give unique insights into the historical record and open vistas of research for scholars and amateur researchers alike.
Nankivell was interested early on in his collecting career in the concept of creating a major collection and illustrated publication which would detail the people, events and images which characterised the entrance of European powers into the Pacific area over 500 years, essentially from Columbus until the end of the 19th century. However as collections do over time, if one has means, they diverge, reroute, go off on tangents. He had passing obsessions, for example collecting portraits, medieval manuscripts, transport memorabilia and imagery but throughout all these changes of course he collected books in almost every category in which one might collect. Nankivell excelled in acquiring natural history volumes, exploration narratives, missionary texts, Pacific languages, aquatint plate books, travel accounts and books of maps.
In each area he seems to have been able to acquire a major if not definitive volume or set of volumes. Sometimes the acquisitions were connected to his project in abstruse ways. While one might expect to find books detailing the post-colonial lives of people and their rich history in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands he also acquired books which are significant in the broadest sense, works that detail the thoughts and motivations of people in Europe over centuries, the books that help underpin the rise of enlightenment thinking and the obsession with understanding the rapidly expanding world which surrounded the authors.
A major early work acquired by Nankivell was the two-volume 1,400-page book, The History of the World printed in 1614. This remarkable book was a testament to the way in which a long stretch in jail might profitably achieve an outcome, presumably averting both boredom and even madness for its writer, Sir Walter Raleigh. The buccaneer, coloniser, historian, contemporary of Shakespeare and a favourite of Elizabeth I did not find favour with her successor, James. Confined for treason for 13 years in the Tower of London Raleigh valiantly put pen to paper, wrote nearly a million words and produced volume 1 of what was originally intended to be a five-volume set.
However the writing project stalled but the manuscript made it into print and significantly Nankivell’s copy is the Stansbury first edition. It was suppressed immediately on publication for being too saucy in censoring princes. For its implied criticism of the King the book was punitively reissued without a title page acknowledging the author. Raleigh’s grasp of history and of its nexus with political power were recast to advantage potential future readers. Lines such as, whosoever commands the sea commands the trade. Whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself. These words seem prophetic.
Raleigh was released from the Tower and later executed for treason in 1618 but this did not stop his important book from becoming a bestseller. Nankivell’s copy of his delightfully written and illustrated book is showing its age after centuries of use and needs some conservation before its pages can be made digitally available to today’s aspiring powerbrokers.
Nankivell acquired one of the greatest rare books or incunabulum ever produced. The 1493 Liber Chronicarum or Nuremberg Chronicle, an incunabulum is really a book pamphlet or broadside printed in Europe before 1501. The Nuremberg Chronicle is a universal history of the Christian world from the beginning of times to the early 1490s. Written in Latin by a Nuremberg physician and humanist, Hartmann Schedel, it was printed as its name implies in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger only 40 years after Gutenberg created his Bible in Mainz, the first book printed with moveable type.
The hefty tome features the largest range of illustrations of any book in the 15th century and the beautiful wood cuts were prepared by artists, Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. The narrative is divided into 11 parts, the so-called world ages and is profusely illustrated by images of Biblical and historical events and topographical views of towns and countries in Europe and in the Middle East. On the bottom left you can see Jerusalem has been depicted and quite a lot of the images have been hand-coloured in this volume.
Nankivell acquired it, he noted, as it held a Ptolemaic world map and also mentioned [Martin Berhame’s] 29:52 voyage on behalf of Portugal. But Nankivell also acquired the loose version of the Ptolemy map, he simply couldn’t resist a bargain if he saw one. The ambition of the Nuremberg Chronicle as a project to make the history of the world more apparent to those lucky readers who could afford a copy was clearly worth documenting in Nankivell’s expanding library.
While the Nuremberg Chronicle was a general compendium of the known world at the time offering readers a sense of Christian achievement complete with town views, Nankivell’s 1960 purchase of the revolutionary Johannes Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables was a much more challenging and perhaps unexpected volume to find in his book collection. While one book represented the world as it was known in the 15th century Kepler’s work represented the changed view of the world as it hurtled through space. Printed in 1627 the Rudolphine Tables were dedicated to Kepler’s employer, Emperor Rudolph and his research evolved into the most accurate star catalogue and planetary tables printed up until that time.
The book featured more than 1,000 star positions, enabled users to track planets and the data supported Kepler and Galileo’s heliocentric and previously heretical view of the universe.
The beautiful title page features an engraved image on the left, a monument to astronomy acknowledging celebrated past astronomers, Heparkis, Ptolemy, Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. But Nankivell’s rationale for buying was that it contained a map showing a West Australian coastline for the first time. Now you can see the map here with the two-headed eagle and down here next to this legend you can see what I’ve blown up here, it’s the West Australian coastline depicted in print. He purchased that book for a large sum of money in 1960 and immediately gifted it to the Library because of that little vestige of information.
Finding a good first edition copy of a narrative by buccaneer, William Dampier, or the explorers, Samuel Wallace, James Cook, William Bligh or the French voyagers, Bougainville, La Perouse, Freycinet or the Russian, von Krusenstern was a regular event for Nankivell. Along with collecting the accounts of Cook associates such as Sydney Parkinson, James Mario Matra, David Samwell and James Keen and then the volumes in their multiple European translations.
Samwell’s account which you can see here is a rare book indeed and fascinating to read, especially as he seems to accurately evoke the complex and controversial circumstances surrounding the death of Cook on Valentine’s Day, 1779. Such acclaimed books along with the later and bestselling accounts of first fleet life and settlement by Arthur Phillip, David Collins, Watkin Tench and John Hunter are all fulsomely represented in Nankivell’s post-settlement library acquisitions.
Studying Nankivell’s book collection is always rewarding, often in unexpected ways. One finds pages trimmed or untrimmed, books bound, unbound or clearly rebound. Beautifully and expensively boxed by his favourite bindery, Bayntun's in Bath that you can see still operating today, hand-coloured and pristine engravings found as they left the publisher. All this is able to be gleaned thorough any study of Nankivell’s library. The smell, texture, elegance of his bound books and his clear delight in fine bindings is something I will always remember. No matter whether it was a remarkably rare and valuable addition to the collection or a single pamphlet he may have acquired for a few shillings Nankivell ensured each item was presented beautifully and lovingly preserved for the future.
It can be evidenced through his running number cataloguing process that Nankivell acquired multiple copies of books, often years apart. His cataloguing system which ran from NK1 to NK12010 gives an approximate idea of when objects were purchased as he continued to number and give items until his death.
It is clear from any examination of his collection that he was still acquiring major books for substantial sums of money well after the first collection was formally acquired in 1959. He may simply have just seen another available copy or had it brought to him and could not resist the purchase, especially if it were at a good price and he of course always got a dealer’s discount which was a help to him.
It’s safe to say that Nankivell as a collector, using the agency of known and famed suppliers like Maggs brothers, Francis Edwards, Walter T Spencer, Bernard Quaritch and his publishing collaborator, Sydney Spence, had a remarkable knowledge of the book trade. This passion for books enabled another useful outcome for the unmarried collector, friendship. Through the acquisition of books and other materials Nankivell made lifelong friends. The London book dealer par excellence, Frank Maggs, not only sold many items to Nankivell, he went on to become one of his confidants and a likeminded friend, as did Sydney Spence who you can see here.
Nankivell’s book-collecting was exhaustive and he found the evolving John Alexander Ferguson Bibliography of Australia to be an extremely useful reference tool as he built up his diverse collection. The two men became friendly and exchanged correspondence over decades. Nankivell was always delighted when a new volume of Ferguson’s Bibliography was published and he was always one of the first to obtain a copy fresh off the press.
Nankivell acquired many items listed in Ferguson’s Bibliography and many items within that bibliography are unique or very rare items indeed, the sort of material that bibliophiles fantasise about finding in attics or junk shops. The phrase, not in Ferguson’s, sounds prosaic but it sets bibliophilic pulses racing. Nankivell thumbed his Ferguson volumes carefully, looking for items to target or to verify his finds, happily noting his acquisition triumphs. Nankivell included a Ferguson in his purchase of the famous and infamous publication in 1975 noting that his Bibliography of Australia is one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century which is a fairly big call. It is a marvellous thing certainly in Australia in the 20th century.
Nankivell also obsessed about convict stories and the rigours of transportation. His own rather surprising and brief incarceration in London for receiving stolen goods – typewriters, as it turned out – in 1941 may have subliminally encouraged a fascination with the underbelly of 18th century society and its later manifestation in the colonies. The extraordinary George Barrington captured Nankivell’s attention early and he collected everything he could lay his hands upon related to Barrington’s unbelievable adventures. The handsome, loquacious Irish-born ladies’ man became an audacious celebrity pickpocket in London and in Europe.
Barrington, after numerous scrapes with the law, was finally transported to Sydney in 1790 only to be soon pardoned and made Chief of Police at Parramatta. Set a thief to catch a thief seemed to be the operating principle at the time. Many books appear to have been written by Barrington and had his name on the title page but his life, fostering a sort of colonial publishing industry, but he of course gained no royalties.
Amongst the famous words put into his mouth by ghost writers were these lines from the famous prologue to one of his books. True patriots all for be it understood we left our country for our country’s good. The Library’s catalogue reveals 27 titles in Nankivell’s library devoted to Barrington’s rambling life and extraordinary adventures. The collector acquired 46 copies of these titles, numerous multiples which of course can vary, sometimes surprisingly from copy to copy. Only the colour plates of two items and two brief pamphlets have been digitised to date. Scholars working on celebrated Barrington have to voyage to Canberra to find a rich source of material documenting not just the man but the 18th century phenomenon.
Predictably the titles of books about the acclaimed and feted Barrington take the usual 18th century form as you can read here. Memoirs of Barrington, An Account of a Voyage by, A Sequel to the Voyage of, The History of New South Wales including, The General Life and Trial of, but the one I love the best is the one down the bottom, Barrington’s New London Spy, Or, The Frauds of London Detected: To which is Now Added an Appendix Containing a Sketch of Night Scenes and Notorious Characters in A Ramble Around The Metropolis being a complete disclosure of all the dark transactions in and around the cities of London and Westminster by George Barrington. This volume is bound with a treatise on the art of boxing by the unfortunately named Mr Belcher.
Barrington was a slippery but charming customer, not unlike the collector himself. Nankivell was fascinated with the underside of life and with the colour and texture of colonial life in particular. He collected printed items which gave voice to everyone from the Governor to the imprisoned, from the freed convict to the wealthy merchant, from the explorer to the explored, indigenous voices and languages feature alike.
Over the years he acquired a huge collection of books, pamphlets, cartoons, sheet music and scrap books documenting the life and times of the audacious criminal, Arthur Orton aka Thomas Castro, the morbidly obese bankrupt butcher from Wagga Wagga whose scheme was to acquire a Hampshire baronetcy. The two resulting court cases in London set records for the length of their run and like successful West end theatre performances provided entertainment to the masses and the hungry press.
In his obsession for completeness the novel of an author such as the celebrated Charles Dickens might be collected simply because a character or plotline mentioned or hinted at colonial Australia. Hunted Down, one of Dickens’ lesser known works published in 1859 and gaining him a grand fee of £1,000, finds its place in Nankivell’s library because it concerns a serial killer inspired by Thomas Wainwright, the convicted poisoner.
Dickens had actually met the infamous Wainwright just before his arrest and trial not for the poisoning of the 21-year-old Helen Abercromby, one of his wife’s stepsisters, but on charges of forgery made 11 years earlier. Apparently Dickens saw Wainwright in Newgate Jail in 1837. While Dickens’ Slinkton in Hunted Down avoids justice through suicide, Wainwright, the actual poisoner upon whom Slinkton seems to be modelled, avoided the noose. Wainwright, transported to Hobart, died in hospital from his opium addiction in 1852. Nankivell also collected more of Dickens’ work in serial form acquiring issues of all the year ‘round and weekly journal for things like Great Expectations and other stories like that.
There are many, many more stories I could relate about Nankivell’s book-collecting, stories buried in his ephemera collecting, pamphlets and rare paintings from colonial Australia and New Zealand but time will not permit. A poignant letter written by convict and frame-breaker John Slater to his wife in 1818 from Sydney and then published by his wife, Catherine, to crowdsource funds for the family to be reunited is a particular favourite and I’ve written an essay about it for the Library magazine, Unbound, if you want to look for it.
Certainly the minutiae of Australian life is documented within Nankivell’s cleverly assembled library, nuanced accounts written from all perspectives, often stark in their frankness and illustrative power.
Ferguson’s Bibliography is a good entrée to what Nankivell’s library holds and future digitisation will make much more available through Trove which will be a boon to researchers and writers of fiction alike. A rare printed narrative such as John Slater’s can create new pathways into our understanding of the earliest days in this country. Not only is the printed letter a poignant account of a life temporarily interrupted but it opens up a world no longer available to us. Such documents when read with other contemporary accounts in print and manuscript create a world in which we can almost take a stroll and see how life was playing out for people 200 years ago here.
Vignettes can be absorbed and evaluated by the contemporary historian or novelist to embroider their canvas, enriching it for thoughts and textures of lives previously hidden.
As I mentioned at the beginning Nankivell enjoyed gardening and nature and as a parallel activity vociferously collected the natural world in printed from and sometimes pressed in between the pages of books as well. He had quite intriguing volumes of New Zealand seaweed, ferns and mosses collected in the mid-19th century. There was a kind of nostalgia I think attached to this and him on the other side of the world looking back to his boyhood in New Zealand and collecting these things which he would have seen on the beaches as a child.
So as I start to wind up tonight I want to show you a few natural history titles suggesting the range of his bountiful library. Many of these books are featured in National Library publications and exhibitions over the past 25 years such as those written by our friend, colleague and aviphile, Penny Olsen. From insects and birds to shells and stars the books and journals Nankivell collected are stunning in their variety and sometimes splendour. Just one listing such as this by George Shaw and Frederick Nodder, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, was originally published as a series running to 24 volumes between 1789 and Shaw’s death in 1813.
These images both delight and inform. They set a standard for the production of such volumes into the future and encapsulate the public appetite for imagery of the remote and foreign world being colonised at the Antipodes. Something wrong with that kangaroo, though.
It appears Nankivell acquired this German 1795 imprint about European insects by David Henry Hoppe because it has an enclosed letter from the naturalist and scientist, E J C Esper written in 1802 dealing with the subject of insects and referring to Sir Joseph Banks, the south seas and Botany Bay. There’s that idea for detail, again always looking for something unique.
Louis Renard’s memorable and gorgeous hand-coloured book of fish was published from 1718 and documented species from the Indian Ocean and coasts of terres Australes. Nankivell’s is a first edition printed in Amsterdam in 1718. It is one of the most important early works of piscatorial science and is yet to be digitised here. It’s a very beautiful thing to look at.
Nankivell also acquired Sir Joseph Banks’ ground-breaking printed precursor to Florilegium. These beautiful uncoloured volumes were produced from 1900 by the British Museum and feature 318 engraved plates capturing the beauty and individuality of the remarkable biodiversity acquired as part of Cook’s Endeavour voyage by Solander and Banks. It was to be another 100 years more or less before they produced the coloured version which we also have a copy of.
The Universal Conchologist, the most beautiful shell book ever produced was created by the enterprising and innovative natural history illustrator, Thomas Martyn, in 1784, post Cook voyage and pre-first fleet Australia. Martyn established a painting academy in Westminster, apprenticing talented boys born of good but humble parents - probably meant he didn’t have to pay them a lot – to hand-paint his publications. By 1789 he had 10 apprentices.
A man of varied interests Martyn produced publications on everything from the advantages of hot air balloons to insects, spiders and animals and the need for superannuation for disabled soldiers. A folio book written in English and French, The Universal Conchologist was the first major production worked on by Martyn’s youthful team. Only 70 copies of this later cancelled imprint were produced and we’re very lucky to have it. I’ve also written an article on that in the National Library magazine which you can Google.
It's important to note here that just as Nankivell collected printed items of great interest for an Australian audience so too do his memorable holdings of New Zealand titles provide unique views of the settlement and documentation of those islands. Time doesn’t permit an examination of the many New Zealand titles tonight.
Interestingly during the last years of Nankivell’s life he acquired this important volume and then gave it promptly to the Library. It was produced by Humphry Repton, the well connected and influential Britain landscape architect, the successor to Capability Brown. Repton’s design for the pavilion at Brighton, humbly inscribed to His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, featured imaginatively contrived views of the building with grounds using coloured before and after images employing folded overlays to persuade the reader how the finished grounds might look. You can see by referring those back and forth, up and down there, how these things folded in and were persuasive. Well they weren’t that persuasive ‘cause he didn’t get the job but it was a kind of clever and innovative marketing ploy all the same. He would have loved Photoshop.
Repton’s designs were improved by the prints but were not implemented and I won’t go into the politics of the pavilion, it is rather complex with the final architect, John Nash, usurping some of Repton’s designs to create the rather orientalist fantasy which you saw before at Brighton. However I think the purposeful acquisition and gift of this book signals both Nankivell’s interest in gardening and recognition of how influential English gardens were developing in the Georgian period, the period in which of course Australia was settled and then those ideas were translated eventually into an Australian context.
To return in closing to Cicero’s quote, one who has books and a garden wants for nothing, Nankivell maintained and loved four gardens during his life. Garden number one. The first was that of his dear old godmother, Fanny Hulbert, in Codford, Wiltshire. You can see her home, Overton House, as it was then and now and that’s Fanny sitting reading in the garden.
His role as a gardener there would have been in the period from about 1919 when he was living there with her after the war. Fanny regarded Rex as her adopted son and he is buried with her in All Saints Church’ in West Lavington. She sold Overton House in 1930, the funds supported Nankivell. She sold it for £2,000 - it’s a rather lovely house – and she left her remaining estate to him on her death in 1934.
Garden number two. Nankivell lived for decades in a poky basement flat in Fitzrovia with few charms other than its central location and the art and books he kept there. He seems to have enjoyed flowers in his flat at least when he was being photographed from posterity and wore them in his lapel. However as much of his collection was stored for decades in the country in Sundial House on a farm in Wiltshire – you can see his photographs here - he visited regularly, boasted of it as his country retreat where he’s gardened for pleasure, escaped business pleasures, visited Bayntun's Bindery and catalogued his collection. Note the rock terrace in his colour snap here.
Of course he didn’t own the house, it was another Nankivell embellishment on the historical record and he was very good at that. It belonged to his other adopted godmother or auntie, Lilian Pickford, or Nin as she was known to him and the family. Still it appears he did enjoy his bolthole and his country pleasures for decades and getting his hands dirty in the garden was one of them.
This is Sundial House today. It still has a lovely garden and it is in an attractive part of Wiltshire. Curiously when finding the house and visiting it last year I encountered this bucolic mural painted by an unknown artist on the living room wall. It had been behind layers and layers of wallpaper for generations but Nankivell did know it and I’m sure must have been curious about its provenance and its appearance there. He offered to have it removed and then preserved and put onto a backing but it didn’t happen for some reason. I’m still trying to establish who may have painted it. Sundial House is dated 1775 and the landscape must be some time after that.
Garden number three. Late in life Nankivell moved out of Fitzrovia and into this house in Drayton Gardens, Kensington. Allegedly he sold his copy of the famous Picasso Minotaur and Marquis print for £51,000 which was exactly enough to buy the house. By this stage Nankivell’s severe arthritis meant active gardening was beyond him but he would have loved the private rear garden and seasonal plantings and [Mizone Nware] 53:39, his chauffeur and friend, could assist him with gardening. He was very good at giving orders, Rex, and there would have been a few arguments, I’m sure, about gardening in the backyard.
Garden number 4. However the garden that Nankivell loved most and tended with great care was at his mansion, El Farah, in Tangier. The house had been previously owned by the famous British society painter, Sir John Lavery RA who enjoyed its charms and painted in his studio in the gardens and captured the house, garden and views in many charming works. There you can see El Farah is the colonnaded building on the right.
Here you can see a couple of images by Lavery of the garden and his studio which is rather nice and also his family thrown in. You can still see the form of this in the house later. I think Nankivell would have been delighted with the house’s former artistic resident and his legacy. I’m not sure if he ever actually purchased a work by Lavery but I suspect he probably did, it would seem the logical thing to have one in your house when you’re looking out over the views of being able to go and look at the painting.
You can see Lavery’s family in studio view in that slide there. You can see these are ones painted of the garden which looks lovely and he did a whole series of these, this is one of Hazel, his wife, on the deck but he also did a whole series of people done up in Arabic attire sitting on the roof deck of the house.
Nankivell took great pride in its charms and spent at least six months a year in residence from the mid-1960s surrounded by the loush life and counterculture of the swinging ‘60s and ‘70s Morocco. He was forever insisting that his friends and collection-building associates from the National Library must come and stay at Al Farah and he asked every Director General to visit. Only one did, after they’d retired.
He said that Al Farah, the house name, meant paradise which may or may not be true. Barbara Perry, the National Library’s Deputy Liaison Officer in London and later head of the Pictures Collection here visited Al Farah in 1974. She recalled the house was full of art, Mattises and Picassos, wonderful antiques and the guests were well provided for by his devoted staff of Moroccan retainers. His gardener, [Kife] 56:41, whose name was associated with his fondness for smoking hashish, assisted him in crafting an oasis of Mediterranean plantings and wonderful views across the Straits of Gibraltar.
Barbara described it as follows, it was a luxurious garden, the roses were just beginning to bloom and there were great swags of divinely scented datura vines and clumps of acanthus which Rex liked because of their classical associations. Rex also pointed out a bed of port wine magnolias whose perfume was said to attract the nightingales.
Nankivell referred to the gardens surrounding his hilltop perch at Al Farah as the jungle. You can see his Christmas card from 1974 here featuring datura from that jungle. The sale brochure for the house after Nankivell’s death in 1977 referred to the six acres of grounds with landscaped paths along terraces, the plantings in the tropical gardens combined exotic plants with specimen shrubs, blue gums, orange and banana trees.
Nankivell loved to relax in his old age surrounded by his delightful garden, resting his aching bones and no doubt reflecting on all he had achieved. Nankivell also loved his bountiful red geraniums and used them inside the house to brighten the interiors and he would also wear them sometimes in his lapel. Here he is captured by his friend, the British painter, Patrick Procktor, holding geraniums at Al Farah in August 1972.
Nankivell had an active mind and an ambitious brief for his indefatigable collecting. He purposefully, doggedly collected items which he believed would throw light on how life in our part of the world had changed over centuries. You could imagine it as a kind of gardening. There are similarities. From the seed of an idea to the active collecting of plants or books, watching or taking an active part in the garden or collections growth. Acquiring multiples for added effect and variety in one’s garden or library. Editing or weeding one’s collection or garden, sitting in one’s garden or library, enjoying the wonderful variety and forms of what you have collected. It seems an apt if extended metaphor. The inscription he insisted on for his final resting place was after all, he did reap.
To share Nankivell’s abundant library with the world through digitisation is a noble ambition which can only be to the greater good in making people more aware of where we’ve come from and reveal useful lessons from the past for these interesting times. Thank you very much.
N: What I’m going to do now, slightly unorthodox, is to run a video. This was shot in 1970 by a very interesting and good sculptor, William Bill Pye, who went to visit Nankivell. He was an artist that showed at The Redfern Gallery. He went to visit Rex, was one of those many people that was asked to come and visit so he went and visited him with his wife, Susan, and they spent a week or two with him in this extraordinary house. He shot this footage on super 8 so there’s no – there’s Rex peering out – so there’s no sound to go with it. It has rather artful shots like that but it gives an idea because it’s one thing to study a collector and look at their books and their paintings and what they’ve said about themselves which sometimes are not correct. But to actually see a bit of moving image is quite interesting and I was so pleased that I tracked down Bill and he gave me this footage which he’d shot all those years ago.
So we’ll leave this running. It runs for a little while, probably runs for about five, six minutes or something. There’s Rex and significantly gesturing to the garden just below the deck here, obviously saying what his plans were for the next iteration of plantings perhaps. But we can leave that going and if anyone’s got any questions feel free to ask. We’ve got microphones here which helps us for the recording purposes and for people to hear so if anyone has a question put their hand up now and we can get a microphone to you.
A: Did you ever meet him?
N: Sadly, no. I was in Year 12 the year he passed on and what I have done, though, in the last three years or so is talked to as many people like Bill Pye and people that worked with him in the gallery in London and visited him and Barbara Perry I’ve met with on numerous occasions. So tried to get a sense from different perspectives of all these people that knew him and knew him to be quite a character.
Here's [Mizone] in his budgie smugglers. He was about 6’4, [Mizone] so he was a very useful kind of bodyguard if nothing else, and chauffeur. Any other questions? Yes, one up there. Kife’s coming up in a minute, I’ll just let you know. You can see him with his pipe.
A: Thank you. Once again a wonderful talk and it’s hard to compete against these images with the question. Did you have a sense of him whether his collection was for those ephemeral pleasures of adornment of psychological or physical pleasures or was this about legacy for him? Did he want himself to be known, himself for the future of his collection?
N: Yeah, that’s a good question. One thing I didn’t mention was that he had at least two ambitions, one was to build this fulsome collection and the other was to get a knighthood and he used the collection quite strategically to negotiate that with both the New Zealand and Australian Governments and New Zealand fell over, the discussions, they wouldn’t have him and I think they might have twigged to the typewriter incident, they weren’t going to be giving a knighthood to anybody who’d spent time behind bars. There’s Kife playing the recorder or flute. I think it was about legacy, the fact that he was illegitimate, that he’d run away from New Zealand to go to the war where he served fairly ingloriously and found himself through circumstance and intelligence to be a really significant dealer which gave him the means to amass the collection to obliterate the kind of history in the past in New Zealand, that skeleton in the closet of illegitimacy which was not a particularly good thing at that time.
So I think he really did want to leave this massive – but he had the kind of prescience to sort of see the level of collecting, if you did that level of collecting where things are so interrelated, they make it much easier for people 50, 60, 70 years later down the track. You can see why Kife was called Kife. I think he spent a lot of the time on the pipe apparently. It was a fairly idyllic place to live obviously. Any more questions? No? Well that’s easy then. Thank you.
K: Well as we all imagine what life might be like in Tangier and then go home and look at our collections and see what kind of self-portrait we’re leaving behind and then going and buying a second copy or a third copy or a fourth copy because Rex did so any expenditure is justified, I think we’ve had a fabulous evening delving into an extraordinary library and extraordinary life. We’re very grateful that we have had the support of the Australian Government’s Catalyst Australian Arts and Culture Fund which has enabled Nat as Treasures Curator to do this work over a number of years. I’d also like to acknowledge the National Library patrons who generously support our Treasures Gallery Access programs and tonight’s lecture is one of those.
There’s much that we can do, much that’s made possible thanks to the support of our donors, our patrons and of course we stand on the shoulders of people like Sir Rex Nankivell who was thinking about legacy and collecting and sharing stories of this nation before many of us were even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes.
Thank you all for attending tonight’s talk. If you would like to hear and read more about Nat’s research don’t forget to look at Unbound online. All of Nat’s talks are recorded either now as videos or as audios so you can catch up over the summer and delve deep into the life of Sir Rex Nankivell. Thank you all for joining us this evening and I hope we see you again soon.