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Indebted to a grand obsession

27 June 2011 2,370 views No Comment

AUSTRALIA’S greatest book collector, David Scott Mitchell, was born in Sydney in 1836, the second child and only son of surgeon James Mitchell and his devoted wife Augusta. In 1907 this inexhaustibly energetic bibliophile gave his extraordinary library, and a bequest for its development, to Sydney and, indirectly, the world.

It is virtually impossible to overrate the importance of the Mitchell Library. Former NSW premier Bob Carr calls it the “DNA of Australia”. It is also hard to disagree with Carr’s contention that Mitchell’s massive collection can be viewed and interpreted as “an expression of Australian patriotism, just like the appreciation of the Australian bush that came from the painters of the Heidelberg School and the first generation of bushwalkers; or the appearance of the Australian writing of the 1890s; or the political impulse towards a federation of the Australian colonies.”

In Book Life: The Life and Times of David Scott Mitchell 1836-1907, Eileen Chanin charts the life and times, and contributions, of David Scott Mitchell to our cultural and intellectual life in an utterly compelling way. Chanin does this by adroitly telling Mitchell’s life story primarily via documenting and examining the vast number of books Mitchell read and collected and also through his contemporary correspondences with many influential legal and university friends and colleagues, as well as with a wide circle of leading intellectuals, professors, poets (including Henry Lawson), newspaper proprietors, journalists, booksellers, stationers and publishers. The latter included the Melbourne-based George Robertson, often regarded as the first important book publisher in Australia, who from 1861 distributed catalogues of books for sale.

As Chanin explains in her beautifully illustrated book, as well as producing numerous textbooks, Robertson also published some 600 books by writers as diverse as Marcus Clarke, James Bonwick, Henry Kendall and the incomparable Adam Lindsay Gordon. Chanin rightly concludes that Robertson’s catalogues “noting the details of these publications, were important references to mid-century colonial writings in the days before a consistent overall picture of this literature existed”. Among many useful illustrations, Book Life boasts a superb photo of the ground floor of Angus & Robertson’s bookshop in Sydney in 1895.

Chanin usefully relates how Mitchell found it difficult to find a house large enough to take his much-beloved books and how, to this end, he finally settled on a substantial property at 17 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst.

From our vantage point in 2011, it seems remarkable that from one man’s collection a “national” library of a distinctly Australian nature was born and gradually grew to life. This came from Mitchell possessing “every work of note published in Australia from 1810 to 1900”. The value of his splendid library is, in a cultural sense, inestimable. One leading authority on early Australian books, recording his sorrow after Mitchell’s death in 1907, rightly wrote that “as years go on, Australia will realise how great a bequest has been made to Sydney”.

Mitchell was interred in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery. All past, present and future lovers of books, of libraries, of ideas and of Australian history, especially of the 19th century, owe him an incalculable debt.

The last illustration in Chanin’s biography is the interior of 17 Darlinghurst Road. Fittingly, Mitchell’s work table is as he left it when he died.

Book Life by Eileen Chanin, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 477pp, $59.95
Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 25 -26 June 2011

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