We have the man’s library, but what to do with the man himself? Dilettante, cocaine addict, recluse, snob, sailor and bibliophile—Alexander Turnbull is not one of those benefactors to be remembered fondly by history, nor, for that matter, by his contemporaries. When he died in 1918 he left his library to the nation. Had he not done so, it’s unlikely he’d be remembered at all.
But what a library! Readying myself for my return to Wellington I’ve been browsing through old catalogues of Turnbull’s books, discovering what I’ll have access to after giving up the Bodleian. Guiltily, I realised I’d made from a distance that old mistake in assuming that because we’re small we wouldn’t have much of value.
We have a copy of what has been called the most beautiful book ever printed, the Hypnerotomachia poliphili, from Aldus Manutius’ Venice press. Turnbull bought it from Bernard Quaritch, famous London book dealer, in November 1900. There are over 100 other incunabula in the national collection, many but not all from Turnbull’s own collection.
We have one of the finest and most complete collections of Milton books in the world. This was perhaps Turnbull’s most serious collecting interest, and his most costly.
Turnbull collected complete sets of books from famous private printing presses including, most notably, William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Alongside this, of course—and after Turnbull’s time—we have complete runs of everything printed by New Zealand’s own private presses like Caxton and Pegasus.
There are currently 24 medieval manuscripts in the Turnbull Library, though Turnbull himself only bought one (he did not read Greek or Latin). The earliest is a pre-1150 manuscript of Boethius’ On Music.
And then, most significantly, is the fact that Turnbull aimed for utter comprehensiveness in his collection of NZ-related materials. Neither Sir George Grey or Dr Thomas Hocken, who donated their significant libraries to the public too, had the sheer quantity of NZ books as Turnbull did.
And unlike so many collections in Europe, we don’t need to be members of a university or personal friends with the collector to go and view any of these. They’re a part of our national collection. Just walk in to the National Library building in Wellington.
Turnbull and NZ’s libraries, a short bibliography:
The Fascinating Folly: Dr. Hocken and his Fellow Collectors. E. H. McCormick, University of Otago Press, 1961. (This is a pamphlet with great introductory material to the three contemporaneous book collectors who gifted their libraries to the nation.)
Alexander Turnbull: His Life, His Circle, His Collections. E. H. McCormick, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1974. (The most comprehensive biography written on Turnbull).
This brilliant guide to book history at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
The Turnbull: A Library and its World. Rachel Barrowman, Auckland University Press, 1995. (A great history of the library through time, though with far less about Turnbull himself than McCormick’s biography).
Early Imprints in New Zealand Libraries. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1995. (Subtitled “A finding list of books printed before 1801 held in libraries in the Wellington region”, this is a good primer on what we have in our libraries).
“How millionaire book collector Alexander Turnbull fell from grace“. Redmer Yska in The Listener, January 2019. (A good primer).
The Oldest Manuscripts in New Zealand. David Taylor, NZCER, 1955. (A popular book in its time, this covers the earliest Medieval manuscripts we had in all NZ libraries before 1955).
Account of a cruise in the yacht Iorangi to Queen Charlotte sound, New Zealand. Alexander Turnbull, privately printed, 1902. (The only book Turnbull himself ever wrote. A copy is available, of course, in his own library).