“I like to think it will eventually come to the Mitchell Library” … curator Paul Brunton.AS EMERITUS curator of the State Library of NSW, Paul Brunton is privy to secrets about famous Australians most of us will only discover years after their deaths.
With his ability to talk almost anyone into giving their papers to the library, he was granted a rare honour of emeritus curator for life when he retired late last year, allowing him to continue his work at the library for as long as he wants.
He is known as being as careful with secrets as he is with the objects he handles wearing the white gloves that many associate with him.
When Brunton visited the Australian author Elizabeth Jolley to negotiate the acquisition of her papers, she let him read private diaries that nobody else has ever seen. They won’t be made public until after her children die.
Jolley said Brunton ”bore the same relationship to her papers that her doctor does to her body”. The author would inscribe copies of her novels: ”To Dr Brunton, let me tell you all my ailments.”
Brunton said Jolley’s trust was an enormous compliment. ”People obviously want to give material to someone who they think will value it, appreciate it, and know it will be cared for.”
Brunton was an unusual boy. While most 12-year-old boys in Sydney’s west in the 1950s dreamt of playing cricket for Australia, Brunton was also shooting for the stars: a career at the State Library’s Mitchell Library, because it had the finest Australian collection in the world.
In his 40 years at the library, Brunton presided over the acquisition of more than 40,000 collections and millions of items. These include Brett Whiteley’s affectionate letters to his mother Beryl, First Fleet midshipmen’s Newton Fowell’s 12 long letters to his father in Devon, Patrick White’s desk and the George Bass collection.
”What I really valued was acquiring material which made our understanding of Australia more complete. It didn’t have to be famous people or famous events,” he told Fairfax Media.
”It gave me as much pleasure to acquire a humble pamphlet that told us something about the past as it did to acquire famous papers like those of Governor Arthur Phillip.”
He said the Phillip letter was important because it showed Sydney Cove was strategically important for Britain.
But Brunton is just as enamoured with a collection (the only one in existence) of copies of the Irish Gazette, a Sydney newspaper for Irish immigrants in the 1870s.
A favourite acquisition was an early children’s jigsaw puzzle made in 1771, which was one of the earliest maps of the world to show Cook’s Endeavour voyage.
Brunton loves the thrill of acquiring something special, such as the only copy outside France of an ”extraordinary” illustrated book written in French and published in Paris in the 1870s about a family of cockatoos living on the Murray River in Australia.
He’s also persistent. When he failed to win at auction the letter by Arthur Phillip, he pursued the new owner until he acquired it for the library. ”I am a bad loser,” he admitted. There was ”nothing as vulgar” as foot-stamping, but some silent plotting on how to acquire the object for the library.
”I like to think it will all eventually come to the Mitchell Library because we will outlast everybody else,” he said.
Letters create portrait of Whiteley
Brett Whiteley’s report card from The Scots School in Bathurst warned the 16-year-old was in ”danger of becoming a dabbler”, noting his art was ”promising” and had won awards at a local show.
The 1966 report card is contained in letters from Whiteley to his mother Beryl over 30 years that create a portrait of the late artist as a young man.
Whiteley is curious, articulate and fascinated by art. Writing from boarding school, Whiteley talks about not making the tennis championships, he sends drawings of table tennis players and details his entries into the Bathurst show, including ”that head in the grey frame” and ”an abstract watercolour I did yesterday”.
The letters to Sning (later shortened to Ning), showed a ”wonderful relationship” between Whiteley and his mother, said emeritus curator Paul Brunton who acquired the letters for the State Library from Mrs Whiteley.
Later, when the artist was living in London, he writes about the rush to send paintings to Jakarta, a ”voltage of friends” visiting and asks if everyone lives life with such ”emotional escalation”. He sends ”three hearts, three warm attempts, hot love in fact to slip the disc of Christmas on earth back again”.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.