Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #3

I only made it to one event today: my wounded wing seemed to be on the mend, but you don’t get to choose which arm you use to straphang when you’re on a crowded tram and the trip back from the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University didn’t do me any good at all.  So I had to skip the evening session on Contemporary Book Design at the State Library  and go home early instead…

It was still worth it.  First of all there is a wonderful exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery in the Baillieu: it’s called Plotting the Island – Dreams, Discovery and Disaster, and it features fabulous old Dutch, French and British maps from the Age of Maritime Exploration.  It’s on until July 16th, so there’s still some time left if you can get there to see it.  The books and maps come from the Rare Books Collection at Melbourne University, and they really are breathtaking.  I particularly like the early Dutch ones, from the days when they knew only the west coast and represent only half of our continent, leaving it tantalisingly unfinished as if to tempt some brave soul to venture forth and map the rest of it.  But the Dutch ones are also beautifully coloured and have exquisite pictures drawn on the edges so that, for instance, there are scenes from heaven along the upper edge, and from hell below.

My biggest excitement, however, was seeing a book that I referred to in my recent review of Brian Castro’s new book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria.  In the novel, Castro’s hero reads a very special book

… in Paris, Gracq reads the French novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) and, his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees, photocopies La Découverte Australe par un Homme-Volant (1781) in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Well, here it is, the very same book!  It’s not a very good photo … because it was taken surreptitiously with an ordinary old Samsung in a room dimly-lit to preserve the books and maps from deteriorating in bright lights.

There were also indigenous artefacts, quaint old navigation tools and some lovely specimens including a lovely rainbow lorikeet.

Once I had browsed around the exhibition, I made my way to the Leigh Scott Room for Art on the Page presented by Susan Millard who’s in charge of Special Collections at the Baillieu, and of rare books in particular.  The room itself is a delight: Leigh Scott was the university librarian in the 1930s, and I think the treasure trove of books lining the walls may have been his own personal library.  Through the floor to ceiling windows you look out onto the south lawn, which even on a grey day like today was very beautiful.  There is no doubt that Melbourne is the loveliest of our universities.  There are some awful 1960s architectural blobs, but more recent buildings are stunning, and of course the old Quad and the Old Arts buildings are gorgeous.

The Art on the Page session was really a sneak preview of an exhibition that’s coming to the Baillieu in August.  The books we were shown were all art books, mostly created with art works to complement poetry, and all limited editions.  As you can see from my photo they were all placed on special cushions to protect them: these books were mostly unbound (and stored in slip cases) so Susan was able to carefully lift out individual pages and show them to us in our small group.

Very soon I realised the limitations of my knowledge of the early 20th century art scene in Paris: taking notes, I could spell Matisse and Miroir, but there were others I simply didn’t know.  They were mostly abstract artists, though one had done some realist illustrations for Wuthering Heights, but it was all fascinating anyway.  The exhibition is going to show how Australian artists were influenced by the milieu in Paris, many of whom as the years went by had fled the Spanish Civil War and then the Nazis.   The immigrant theme is going to be an important one in the exhibition, as many of our artists expressed their sense of unbelonging in poetry and art.

It was interesting to me to see that in an era when most contemporary poets struggle for publishing opportunities, some poets (e.g. Antoni Jach) are published in these exquisite illustrated special editions which are sold amongst a network of collectors who can afford them.  Susan made the point, when someone asked for a definition of a ‘rare book’, that it was important for these limited editions to be collected.  Usually rare books are collected because they are old, or vulnerable, or yes, rare.  But some contemporary books are added to the university’s collection now because they have a cultural and aesthetic value, and they will be rare before long, and people will want to study them in the future.

Hopefully a good night’s sleep will restore my shoulder to order, and I will be able to go to tomorrow’s Hidden Treasures from the NGV!


  1. what a wonderful privilege to see al these antiques and be able to dive into your passion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rare Books Week has been just brilliant!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have a look. I have always been intrigued by rare books but at the same time it seems like a life long effort and therefore I have never undertaken that journey.


        • I think that’s why Rare Books Week is so good. Someone has had all the bother of finding the books and looking after them, and curating them – and we just get to enjoy looking at them and hearing their stories!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. What an idiot I am. I met my son at the uni bookshop but then headed off. Did discover though an excellent second hand bookshop in High St (Darebin?) near the start of Lower Plenty Rd.


    • No! You didn’t! What a shame…


  3. There is something wonderful about old maps sometimes we could do with them now


    • Well, Stu, someone asked the presenter if they are still made for soldiers behind the lines, and he said that if they are, no one is telling.


  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and hope your ‘wing’ heals quickly!


    • Thanks, Anna, it’s feeling better this morning already. (Better as in better, not better as in good, so I am going to be more careful today!)


  5. interesting
    here in NYC we have the Morgan Library


    • Well, if I ever make it to NYC, I’ll add it to my itinerary…


  6. […] (Update: much to my delight, I saw a copy of Restif’s book myself at Melbourne’s Rare Books Week.  You can see my photo of it here). […]


  7. […] (Update: much to my delight, I saw a copy of Restif’s book myself at Melbourne’s Rare Books Week.  You can see my photo of it here). […]


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