Letters and luggageAugust 3rd, 2012
On August 6 the Alexander Turnbull Library re-opens to the public, having been closed for over two years for refurbishment. Once more, the full range of the collections of the Library will be accessible to researchers.
The opening exhibition in the new Turnbull Gallery, Fresh – recent past, new start , marks the occasion by showing recent, and significant, acquisitions, including a first edition of John Milton’s Lycidas and Turnbull’s letter requesting his London agent to send him any Milton he can lay his hands on.
Photograph of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, William Henry Scott Kinsey, ca. 1900. Ref: PA7-14-35.
The Turnbull Library holds its benefactor’s letters from 1891 to 1900, transcribed from his letter books, indexed, and bound by a team of seriously committed librarians in 1968. This correspondence was scrutinised during preparation for Fresh, and we found them to be so engaging we decided to present a few more here, as the first in a series.
A fresh start
Even before he came to Wellington with his family, in March 1892, Alexander Turnbull was afflicted by what he called the ‘disease’ of bibliomania. There were inklings of it in his brother, Robert, who had arrived in the colony earlier; but it was to be Alexander who was to become obsessed with the ‘fascinating folly’ and who would eventually die leaving tens of thousands of books, maps, paintings and artefacts to the nation.
Leaving London for New Zealand was a major undertaking for the Turnbulls, and several events almost conspired to prevent it from happening. Soon before departure Alexander’s mother was found fallen in the fire, with serious burns to her head. His father, meanwhile, drank heavily and was unreliable in behaviour and deed; he had recently fallen down a flight of stairs.
A few of Alexander’s concerns are conveyed in a letter of 22 July 1891 to Robert:
The question of our migrating to New Zealand looms larger and larger every day and will have to be very seriously grappled with ere long; meantime Papa lies helpless on his bed and Sissy & I have to discuss the matter with ourselves as Mama is quite useless for advice. I think we will have to come out, all of us, and I try as hard as possible to banish the idea of his [Papa] “doing wrong” out there, such a scandal it would be, all his reputation, laboriously built up during twenty odd years would be blown away by the stinking breaths and gibbering lips of the Wellington gossips. … My heart sinks within me when I contemplate the packing … I, on my part, am resolved never to leave my books.
A fresh start was what was needed. Packing began in earnest. Parents were put on the straight and narrow, and then on the boat. Alexander’s beloved books were carefully put into cases and sent on before the family with the rest of the furniture. His instructions upon their arrival were unequivocal, as he wrote to Robert on 15 October:
As for the books these must await our advent and I hereby anathematise & curse you by bell, book and candle, if you broach them before I appear on the scene. I know exactly what would happen if you did open them and arrange them neatly in rows on the shelves, why here a body & there a body would come & look at them & would not be able to resist taking one or more of the precious darlings home “just to dip into, you know, I’ll return them tomorrow”. Then pst!! goodbye to them pour toujours.
When landfall was finally made in Wellington after two months at sea, Alexander was reunited with his ‘darlings’ and collecting could resume in earnest. His shelves were soon to be groaning again, and bigger spaces made.
Acquiring books – and pretty much anything, for that matter – required letters ‘Home’, and Alexander’s are a fascinating and discerning account of the many books, clothes and other personal items he bought. In the next blog in this series, ‘Turnbull’s letters’, we will hand pick some of these and hold them up to the light.