The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February 1, 1938)
The Turnbull Library — New Zealand's Greatest Glory — A World Famous Treasury of Literary Riches
You will see continually, in the great English weekly papers, travel advertisements on these lines:
“Travel Party Assembling for Instructional Tour of Greece … Apply …
“Italian Art Galleries … Apply for terms of Conducted Educational Tour.”
I am sure it is not an overlap of the imagination to hope to see one of these days, as a prominent part of our Dominion publicity, “Come to New Zealand—the Home of the Turnbull Library.”
History, as an old philosopher said, has a way of being “more cunning than the prophets,” and I am sure that even the most visionary dreamers of our pioneers would be surprised if they could come back and see this superb book collection. It was described by the eminent American and Scottish library experts composing the 1934 Carnegie Corporation Commission, as “One of the best libraries of its kind in the world.” It is a strangely fascinating story which tells of the building here in New Zealand, thousands of miles from the sources of world culture, of a library which houses an internationally known store of prize blooms in the rich garden of erudition.
It needs no fine writing to make everyone understand that the most precious possessions of the human race are its writings and records in book form. The gossipy diary of that first-class civil servant, Samuel Pepys, is a window through which we see the human procession in the lively reign of good King Charles. Thousands of similar records have been altogether lost. To go back to the days of Greece, Sophocles wrote a hundred plays and only seven have survived. Euripides wrote seventy-five tragedies, of which a mere twenty have come down to the present. Is it any wonder that Richard de Bury wrote so sadly in 1320: “Almighty Author and Lover of Peace … Scatter the nations that delight in war, which is above all plagues injurious to books.”
In the preservation of culture, it is rather difficult to appraise sufficiently the work of the book collector. His profound enthusiasm, his pulsing joy of the quest, his undying passion for his hobby, combine to make the precious things in bookland safe.
Pride of possession has its place, but it is notable that all the greatest book collectors have treated their libraries as community properties. I can conceive of no nobler use of accumulated riches than the creation of these cultural cathedrals filled with the holy things of literature.
It was on one of the golden days of New Zealand's history that Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull was born, making 1868 a banner year for our country. He was educated in England at Dulwich College and stayed on in the London office of his father's business until he was twenty-two years of age. He came back to New Zealand aflame with the pure passion of the bibliophile, and the library became his engrossing life work.
This unassuming, studious son of a New Zealand merchant thus entered the ranks of the Medici, Earl Spencer, Huntington of California, and Grenville whose incomparable library is the foundation glory of the British Museum.
Only rich men can work these miracles, and Alexander Turnbull devoted the whole of a liberal income for more than a quarter of a century to his high enterprise. He had formulated a policy and had a clear vision of how a library should be planned before the science of cataloguing and its allied arts had been evolved to its modern state of perfection. He had a share of the market before the entry of the American millionaire, and the consequent riotous rise in prices.
On to-day's value scales, little sections of the Turnbull Library containing a hundred or two books would embarrass many a State Treasury to find funds for their purchase. It must be remembered, too, that Alexander Turnbull was a scholar, making his purchases with selective wisdom and unrelenting care. When he died he had become an authority on many matters pertaining to books and literature, and hundreds of volumes bear his pencilled notes, showing his erudition and detailed knowledge of booklore. It is with proper pride that I can confidently record that many a longer purse owned by a man of less discrimination and patience was defeated in the struggle for priceless books by this hawk-eyed New Zealander in his Antipodean eyrie.
When, in 1918, Mr. Turnbull died, he bequeathed this edifice of his life work to the people of New Zealand. Time alone will enable the people of New Zealand to see, in true perspective, the colossal achievement of this modest and munificent Wellingtonian.
I have been in the habit for years of taking distinguished visitors to the Turnbull Library. I remember the amazement of Dame Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson and their son when they paid their first visit, and I was delighted to find that they spent there every minute of every leisure hour during their Wellington season. They were lovers of John Milton, steeped in adoration of his works, and they rated the Turnbull “Miltoniana” as “approximately equal to that of the British Museum, and certainly without any other peer.”page 35
It was the many-sidedness of Alexander Turnbull's tastes that makes his collection so distinctive. This storehouse of the records of human endeavour contains priceless materials of the widest possible variety. It is a cellar of literary wines without any restriction as to age, bouquet, or place of origin. The only quality is excellence.
The easiest description of its contents for the average reader is to say that there are three broad classes of books. The first includes ethnology, anthropology, Pacific languages, folk lore and voyages. This division includes all New Zealand literature, and it is not an overstatement to say that every relevant record committed to print dealing with our country, is here on these shelves. The second category, the rare books, includes choice specimens of incunabula, i.e., books made before 1500, and an imposing array of the important first editions of English books of the 16th to 19th centuries, with special reference to poetry and drama. The third class, English classical literature, naturally supplements much that is in the rare book class.
It should be said that Mr. Turnbull's first objective was a complete collection of “Oceania.” For instance, there are no less than five thousand volumes in every language and dialect of the Polynesian island races. Students interested in the misty dawn of New Zealand history will find such things as the actual log pages of the voyages of Cook and Vancouver, the written journal of the Rev. Samuel Marsden penned in 1819, and there are countless art works of such men as Heaphy, the New Zealand Company's draftsman, Sir William Fox, Barraud (200 water colours) and many others. There are original logs of whalers and traders by the dozen.
But the Turnbull Library is rich also in other rare books of voyages. The famous Hakluyt's Voyages has its own story. This copy is the 1598 second edition, which contains the tale of “The Singeing of the King of Spain's Beard,” an adventure which was organised by the Earl of Essex. When Essex fell from favour with Queen Elizabeth, she peremptorily ordered this part of the narrative to be deleted. Only a few copies escaped, and the Turnbull book is one of them.
The friendship of Robert Browning and our own Alfred Domett (Waring of the famous poem) produced many letters, and most of them are here. Indeed, the Defoe, Browning and Swinburne first editions are marvellous, many of them with autograph associations.
Often, the most impressive possessions of great libraries are their missals incunabula, and what may be best described as “the great monuments” among books. Of these I may instance Peter Schoeffer's “Constitutions of Clement,” made in 1471 on vellum, of which there are only two other perfect copies, one in the British Museum and the other in the Bibliotheque National in Paris. There are also a 1478 edition of “Plutarch's Lives” and Ratdolt's “Euclid's Geometry” (1482).
The Shakespeare folios are splendid, and although missals were not particularly favoured by Mr. Turnbull there is a Gothic Book of the Hours which is a splendour of dull rich golds, blues, greens and reds.
Alexander Turnbull's fine taste inclined him to the worship of beautiful bindings. For the re-clothing of his new purchases, he employed the best binders in the world, without considering cost. The artistry of this work is an abiding joy to the eye. His instructions were also mandatory that only “mint” copies were to be purchased. His books are in flawless physical condition. There is a complete collection of the superb Kelmscott Press, and many other works by the men who turn volumes into art objects—editions by Elzevir, Baskerville, and William Morris is represented by the famous Chaucer. More modern work is seen in the Ashendene Press.
The fine Kinsey collection has been the most substantial addition to the Turnbull Library since the foundation. Housed in the building is the useful Carter collection, industriously garnered by the man whose name was perpetuated in Carterton. In this room sits Lindsay Buick, New Zealand's leading historian.
Public spirited citizens occasionally add to the library's store of treasures, though the library is by no means as yet in the position of the United States Library of Congress where a form has to be filled in by a proposed donor for approval by the authorities. It is the obvious duty of New Zealanders who own books of rarity or unique interest to pass them over to this national collection. I could fill a hundred pages with details of the matchless masterpieces and rare book-jewels on these miles of shelves. The Turnbull Library, by itself, invests New Zealand with a distinction which marks it off from all the others of Old England's young family of nations—something not possessed by any other land classed as “a new country.” Its value to the Dominion both as a cultural and a practical asset is beyond all dreaming. Therefore, when we are rightly standing up for the land of our birth, the Turnbull Library should be in the forefront of our claims to worth.
There are, I find, many misconceptions about the Turnbull Library. The simple brick building has the appearance of a three-storyed private home, and it seems almost to have inherited its air of detachment and quietude from Alexander Turnbull himself.
It is one of the boons of our heritage of pioneers possessing genuine culture that writing has been continuous since the first four ships. Never before in the history of a country has such a complete panorama of a people been committed to the printed page. This boon is enriched by the fact that owing to the beneficent genius of Alexander Turnbull, the whole of this record is housed and preserved for the generations that come after.
I look every time I enter the hall at the two oil paintings done in 1818 of the Maori chieftains who were taken to England by Marsden. Their handsome, aristocratic faces have no signs of the primitive, and in the library will be found thousands of cogent proofs of the fine cultural standard reached by our Maori fellow countrymen.
Finally, I find it difficult to keep to sober terms in saying the last words of an article on this noble and inspiring temple of learning. I have mentioned before that fine old Bishop, Richard de Bury. Hear him on books. “In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
What we have to do as good New Zealanders is to understand and appreciate the glory that is ours in the possession of the Turnbull Library.page 40