State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 69 Autumn 2002

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A Bookman Recollects

Vane Lindesay: caricature by Bill Leak

[Vane Lindesay (b. 1920), having retired after more than a half-century as a black-and-white illustrator and book designer, is currently at work on an informal set of reminiscences entitled ‘Some Fragments Recalled'. He is an authority on the history of black-and-white art in Australia, his most recent book being a study of Stan Cross, published by Melbourne University Press in 2001. In this extract from his history of his own life he looks back to the beginnings of his passion for books, and recollects some of the books and book people whom he has known.]
It Is not difficult for me to recall my first leisure reading material, nor the time, which was as soon as I learnt the alphabet. For it was the anthropomorphic characters delineated in the English comic papers for juvenile readers during the 1920s, Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys with their neatly lettered speech balloons, that provided pleasure, entertainment, and learning at an early age.
At some stage during the 1930s I graduated to more substantial reading matter-this was another English juvenile publication, the Magnet. These 28-page weekly numbers featured the Greyfriars schoolboys, Billy Bunter and the ‘Famous Five’ led by everybody's idea of ‘a decent chap’, Harry Wharton, key figures in every story. The Magnet was not a comic paper: it comprised long school-adventure stories illustrated by six or so pen drawings, and the usual ‘editor's chat'. These endearing yarns quickly made their author, Charles Hamilton, who wrote under the pen name of ‘Frank Richards’, famous over several generations in every English-speaking country. Copies of the Magnet, which ceased publication at the outbreak of the Second World War, are today expensive collector's items.
And so Tiger Tim comic papers and the Magnet, along with a few A.G. Henty stories, formed a corridor to my first real experience of literature, although I had already at this time enjoyed Great Expectations, a Sunday-School prize for regular attendance.
I recall, too, the first book I purchased when I started working. It was the grey, cloth-bound Methuen edition of I Claudius, followed by Claudius the God, both titles of course by Robert Graves. In my late teens I worked in the city two or three minutes walk at lunchtime from Hall's second-hand bookshop, with its kindly, quietly spoken manager, Jack Bradstreet, and to Robertson & Mullens's fourth-floor second-hand books
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section, conducted by the gracious and scholarly John Holroyd. And it was only a short tram ride up Bourke Street to the second-hand treasures on Ellis Bird's shelves. She, too, was a kindly person. After a few visits I not only received discounts on purchases, but also was invited upstairs where she entertained writers and readers at dinner.
John Holroyd, a most knowledgeable bookman and wonderful friend, was cruelly treated, I thought, when Robertson & Mullens closed down John's second-hand book department. The management acquired a large set of scales and set them up on his counter. John was ordered to dispose of his stock, not by the single volume but in bundles and sold at something like one shilling per pound weight on the scales.
Jack Bradstreet, now in semi-retirement from his own Glenferrie bookshop, had at one period worked at Hall's shop in Chapel Street, Prahran. There, about to purchase from Jack a handsome, illustrated book of decorated title-pages, illuminated pages and hand-tooled bindings, I discovered that I had lost my purse and my return train ticket. Jack, understanding my distress, wrapped the book, went to the till, took out a pound note, and handed me both book and money. I was moved by his kindness and trust, for we were not really known to each other then. With such helpful and generous people my modest library grew at an impressive rate.
Around the corner from Hall's Chapel Street shop and close to the old Prahran Market, in another second-hand bookshop, Jack Quaine, a moustached, portly, Bread and Cheese Club member, specialised in selling nineteenth-century ‘penny dreadfuls'. Known also as ‘bloods’, these lurid publications produced in England for juvenile readers, narrated the grisly stories of ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, of ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, ‘Joskin the Body Snatcher’, the hideously ugly ‘Blue Dwarf and ‘Varney the Vampire’, among a score of other ghoulish characters. Gothic in mood, set in poxridden slums, or dank castles, workhouses, jails, thieves’ kitchens and cemeteries, this fiction was presented between startling multi-coloured combination wood-engraved-and-lithographed illustrated covers.
Among the sensational titles of the day were a long series of the popular and best-known character, ‘Jack Harkaway’, whose adventures took place world-wide. During 1950 I purchased from Jack Quaine possibly
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Black-and-white wood-engraved illustration depicting Australian Aborigines; from Jack Harkaway and His Son's Adventures no. 168, p. 837, London, 1876. Caption reads: ‘Mole grasped his rum bottle to defend himself'.

the rarest book in my collection, Jack Harkaway and His Son's Adventures in Australia. Published in London in 1876, with 12 black-and-white wood-engraved illustrations (process acid-engraving on metal, for line and half-tone illustration was yet to be invented), drawn by artists who had never visited the Australian colonies. Those few who did visit brought with them pre-conceptions of the country and found it difficult — one could add impossible — to depict the landscape as it actually was. The result was Australian Aborigines resembling Africans or Red Indians, and eucalyptus trees as dense, broad-leafed oaks or exotic feathery-like date palms. This incredible fictional exercise and its accompanying illustrations depicts, among other ludicrous inaccuracies, Australian Aborigines as loin-clothed ‘savages’ armed with stilettos, and a line of text reading, ‘Carajo caramba!’ yelled the nigger with the bow and arrow'.
In my younger years I was enthralled by The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. This led to an exploration of early Australian writing, which — as I understood it — was largely the result of the Bulletin management, principally J.F. Archibald, promoting and publishing Australian writers. By the 1890s an ‘Australian school’ of writing had emerged, and it was against this background that I decided to specialise my collecting and build an Australian library. I was very fortunate, indeed lucky, to start when I did in the early 1950s: to attempt such a thing today would be enormously costly and largely unrewarding. To widen my collecting opportunities I visited Sydney's secondhand bookshops, often twice a year. Previously, during the Second World War on Army leave, I had chanced upon Tyrrell's bookshop in Lower George Street, and mere had met the welcoming, kindly Jim Tyrrell.
Jim earnestly encouraged young book collectors, particularly those interested in Australiana. And he demonstrated his encouragement by discounting one's selection so low that, in effect, it amounted to a gift. From Jim Tyrrell's shelves I acquired over a
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year or so first editions of all Henry Lawson's titles, including the extremely difficult-to-come-by Short Stories in Prose and Verse.
‘Rare’ can hardly describe this first book of Lawson's, published in 1894 by his mother Louisa, then proprietor of the Dawn, a feminist journal, which was issued from an office in George Street, Sydney. Short Stories in Prose and Verse was, like the Dawn itself, completely typeset by hand, printed and published by women. This thin, olivegreen paper-covered book is, apart from extreme rarity or literary value, a typographical curiosity, with letters or characters missing from words, broken characters, some printed upside down, here and there a wrong font, and weirdly decorated with illustrations and with bits, pieces and odds of printer's furniture. But, as Henry Lawson stated in his preface, the book contained ‘some of my earliest efforts’ which ‘have been collected and printed hurriedly, with an eye to Christmas, and without experienced editorial assistance, which last, I begin to think, was sadly necessary'.
Only 20 or so copies of this book are known to exist, for records show that when Lawson was taking the loose sheets on a hand cart to the binders a sudden, strong wind scattered most of the printed pages beyond recovery. Those that survived made up, with four pages of advertisements, a 90-page book priced then one shilling.
Among the treasures Jim Tyrrell had on offer to me for only a few shillings was a first edition of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, complete with Hal Gye's dust-jacket, and signed by C.J. Dennis on the title page in his familiar green ink.
I first met Hal Gye in the old, now-vanished London Hotel in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, during the 1960s. Barry Watts, the then Publisher for Angus & Robertson, had commissioned me to contribute a chapter to the C.J. Dennis Centenary book, The World of the Sentimental Bloke: my subject was ‘C.J. Dennis and His Illustrators'. It is of some interest to note that the various works of Dennis have been illustrated by nine different artists — Sam Wells, Daryl, Lionel and Norman Lindsay, Alex Gurney, David Low, Percy Leason, and Virgil Reilly, all of whom were, for the major part of their creative lives, household names. But without doubt, the artist best known for his association with Clarence Michael James Dennis was his friend Hal Gye (pronounced as in jive), the illustrator of Den's second and best-loved book, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, published in 1915. Because of the popularity and the frequent reprints of this book, most adult Australians are familiar with Hal Gye's delicate pen drawings of The Bloke, Doreen, The Straw ‘at Coot and Ma — naked, winged cherubs of immense charm and invention enlivening Den's narrative poem.
Dennis and Hal Gye first met through the Melbourne office of the Bulletin towards the end of 1914. And the friendship lasted, with Hal Gaye illustrating all of Den's future books, excepting A Book for Kids, published in 1921, which Dennis himself illustrated. Den fancied himself as a comic artist but in no real sense could be allowed this distinction, although his child-like drawings well fitted the book's title and contents.
Talkative and intelligent, Hal Gye was a tiny man, looking for all the world like a retired, successful jockey — spic, span, and natty. As well as Dennis, the companions of his youth included David Low, Will and Ambrose Dyson, Cecil Hartt (later the ‘Digger’ artist for Smith's Weekly), the poet and Bulletin freelance cartoonist Hugh McCrae, and
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the watercolourist Harold Herbert. He belonged to the old school of black-and-white artists — his drawings teem with japes, eccentricities, the Bohemian life. But after he shared a studio with David Low, Gye became interested in watercolour painting. Following a serious car accident and hospitalisation in 1933, he lost interest in black-and-white illustration and explored the medium of oil painting. After his initial success with ‘The Bloke’ illustrations, and indeed those for The Glugs of Gosh, he never developed an individual style or followed through any technique he tried with the pen or with the brush to attain personal, distinctive and original achievement.
In later life, however, Hal Gye did emerge as a fine short-story writer under the nom de plume of ‘James Hackston'. Unknown to his friends, in fact to anybody, his stories and some of his light verse appeared in the Bulletin for many years. In the 1960s he had two books of prose writings published — a collection of his ‘Father’ stories, Father Clears Out (1966) (which has a fine Thurber sound about it), and an autobiography covering the years of his nineteenth-century childhood, The Hole in the Bedroom Floor (1969).
Hal Gye died in November 1967. It is for his pen drawings of larrikin cupids, with their evocative backgrounds sensitively suggested, that he will share with Dennis a degree of immortality for giving Australians the pictures and the songs of the Sentimental Bloke.
A joyous experience was collecting and reading the original Dad and Dave ‘Selection’ stories by Arthur Hoey Davis, better known by his pen-name of ‘Steele Rudd'. Gradually books by Edward Dyson, Ernest Favenc, E.J. Brady, Barbara Baynton, Bernard O'Dowd, Edward Sorenson, Albert Dorrington, Louis Becke, Rolf Boldrewood, Price Warung, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Marcus Clarke and Louis Stone lightened Jim Tyrrell's shelves to burden mine.
It was sometime during 1955 when I was browsing among the Australiana of the Bourke Street antiquarian booksellers, Sewards — jokingly named ‘Seaweeds’ — that to my enormous delight I discovered a book I had so wanted to read. This was the rare Hansom Cab Publishing Company edition of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, being the first English edition of 1887.
Premeditated murder in some shape or form has been, from the beginning, a part of the human condition, but the fascination of murder as a literary theme is a quite late development in the culture of European civilisation: as a legitimate literary exercise the subject of this now-prolific industry is not yet 200 years old. From the start it was not murder alone that fascinated readers but the hunting down of clues to the crime, the eventual bringing to justice of those responsible.
Edgar Allan Poe has the historical distinction of creating the crime-and-detection story. Incredibly, in his The Mystery of Marie Roget, published in Paris during 1845, Poe actually wrote what turned out to be the correct solution and by literary detective work gave clues resulting in the arrest by the New York police of the real-life murderer of Mary Cecilia Rogers whose life was brutally ended in that city. Later, of course, the British writer Conan Doyle was to create an immortal detective character modelled on Doyle's medical teacher who, by observation and deduction, could — before his patients opened their mouths — diagnose their ailments, tell them their past symptoms, and give
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details of their early lives and of their occupations and character. Dr Joseph Bell became, then, the model for Conan Doyle's detective, Sherlock Holmes, introduced to a future, clamouring public in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, and the following year in the novel, A Study in Scarlet. Since when, to the present day, a steady list of both famous fictional detectives and of crime-and-detection literature has been created, not only by journeymen writers but by many authors of international note in other areas of creative writing.
Preceding Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story was ‘A Sensational Melbourne Mystery’, The Mystery of A Hansom Cab, which had a spectacular and, in every way, amazing Australian success following its publication in 1886. Initially its author Fergus Hume had difficulty in finding a publisher, so he decided to publish at his own risk. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was first printed by Kemp & Boyce at South Melbourne, and in three months 5,000 copies were sold. Another three impressions each, it is said, of 10,000 copies, followed. At this stage Hume foolishly sold his copyright for 50 pounds to a sharp businessman named Trischler, who, with a group of associates, formed The Hansom Cab Publishing Company, and set up an office at Ludgate Hill, London. From there in 1887 they ordered the printing of around 25,000 copies every month; a total, we are told, that barely kept pace with public demand.
Such astonishing sales success and the complicated multiplicity of various editions and impressions — particularly those of The Hansom Cab Company — have in recent years aroused the suspicions of serious book collectors. The suggestion that circulation figures printed on the title pages of the earlier editions were deliberately faked to further boost the enormous sales is not only plausible but highly likely.
Because of the shabby treatment received by Fergus Hume from the shady Trischler, he never made another penny from his tremendously famous and successful book. But others did. Such was its fame and popularity, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was produced as a stage play, performed first in Melbourne at the Alexandra Theatre in 1888, and again in Melbourne in 1918, this time at the Princess. The play was also taken to London, where it ran for 500 nights. As well, two silent films were made for the Australian circuit, the first in 1911 and the second in 1925. Such was the enormous success of Hume's ‘Sensational Melbourne Novel’ that one can only wonder at its influence on other authors of the time.
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Perhaps the most fondly remembered Australian crime-mystery writer is Arthur Upfield who was not, as is commonly supposed, an Australian by birth, but an Englishman who lived and worked in this country from the age of 23 until his death at the age of 76 in 1964.
Upfield's fame, and rather late success, rested on his creation, Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte BA, the son of a white father and an Aboriginal mother. Bony never failed to solve the involved and cleverly constructed crime plots, principally by observation, deduction, and infinite patience. Most of his crime stories, because of their outback or central desert settings, still make fascinating, evocative reading. Since the first of his stories in the late 1920s, consciously or otherwise, writers of Australian crime and detection have moved away from the outback legend that was so significantly a part of this country's literary genesis. By the end of the Second World War it had become little more than a gumleaf-and-wattle sentiment. Internationalism has appeared as a more acceptable and modern direction, utilising urban settings and situations.
No Australian book has had a more curious publishing history than Frank Dalby Davison's Man Shy. Privately published by the author and printed in Sydney in 1931, the book was bound in stiff wallpaper covers as an economy measure. It was originally hawked from door to door, but eventually became an enormous publishing success and is still in print.
My particular copy of the ‘wallpaper’ first edition was once described by its author as the rarest of all because, as he jokingly explained, it ‘was the only one I know of that has not been autographed by me, and therefore we should keep it that way'. I wish now that I had asked him to scribble something in it.
In my profession as a book designer I am invited to book launches and other functions. It has been my habit for many years to ask selected guests to autograph invitation cards, menus, programmes and the like — ‘a souvenir of the occasion'. Historians of the future who come across one of these signed items could well be puzzled by the number 5186 under the signature of Frank Dalby Davison. It is perhaps not generally known that Frank, though born in Queensland, served with the British Army during the First World War. And as any old soldier will tell you, we never forget our regimental numbers. On the numerous occasions we met we would mock-salute each other and quote our army numbers — hence the comic ritual of the autographs he signed for me.
The writer Alan Marshall was a contemporary and friend of Davison, and the author of possibly the most austere Australian literary production, an extremely rare collection of six short stories, published by the Victorian Writers’ League in Melbourne in 1940 under the title of These Are My People. This curious book consisted of 28 roneoed pages, stapled into attractive grey paper covers, decorated with a lino-cut portrait of Alan Marshall surrounded by lino-cut lettering in brown. The title was, of course, used again for the 1944 book of Marshall's travels around victoria in a horse-drawn caravan.
Alan Marshall was, I think, the first writer I met. This was at the publishing division of F.W. Cheshire in the Little Collins Street basement bookshop. I had been
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Front cover of an extremely rare collection of six short stories, published by the Victorian Writers League, Melbourne, in 1940 under the title These Are My People.

called for a briefing on the design of the dust jacket and the illustrated endpapers for Alan Marshall's Ourselves Writ Strange, a factual work about the Australian Aborigines. Late I was to illustrate his Bumping into Friends, and his series of ‘Speewah’ and folk lore yarns for the weekly Australasian Post magazine.
Alan, cheery, talkative, his shortened, withered leg hitched around one crutch perfectly balanced while he hand-rolled a cigarette (the last of the manual skills?), pork pie hat lairily pushed to the back of his head — the first of some great moments to come. It was Alan's custom to invite friends to his Eltham studio, and over tea and scones Alan would read — well, in fact, part-act — his latest piece of writing.
In 1955 Alan decided to give up his Australasian Post feature, which I had the distinction of illustrating each week. I was of course saddened. But the editor of this national magazine, the affectionately regarded Jack Hughes, seemingly aware of the reputation of Bill Wannan, promptly engaged him to produce a weekly Australian feature. It consisted of bush yarns, ballads, lore, legends, and tall stories ranging across bushrangers, river paddle-boats, outback characters like ‘Muldoon the Glutton’, ‘Hungry Tyson’, and others from a published collection, Bullockies, Beauts, and Bandicoots. To my great delight I was chosen as Bill's illustrator — thus, not only did he become a loyal mate but an important influence in my development as an artist. This was the start of an unbroken 25-year collaboration which is, in all likelihood, a record in Australian journalism for a writer-artist collaboration.
Vane Lindesay
[All the items illustrated in this article are in the author's personal collection.]