With the death earlier this year of Bernard Smith, Australia lost one of its greatest intellectuals and most probing cultural historians. He was a great friend to this Library and we are honoured that he, and his family, felt that his vast research collection should find a good home here. He has also left behind a body of scholarship that will continue to inspire, challenge and inform all of those with an interest in Australia’s artistic and cultural life.
Smith’s utterly endearing and novelistic memoir of growing up in Sydney in the first few decades of the twentieth century has been hailed as one of Australia’s finest pieces of autobiographical writing. An homage to both his natural mother and his foster mother, the defining influences that led him to becoming one of our defining intellectuals are here lovingly and movingly remembered.
This is one of Bernard’s earliest books and still one of his most original and influential works. Written in Sydney during the dark days of the Second World War, he virtually created the template for the study of Australian art, outraging some and delighting others by placing his discussion of the art within the context of its economic, social and political times. His introduction to this 1979 reprint is itself delightful, revisiting the rationale behind the project and shooting off a few gentle and well-aimed barbs at some of the naysayers along the way. Unbelievably, this book appears to be out of print at the moment (thank goodness for libraries!).
These volumes established themselves as seminal works on the art of Cook’s voyages as soon as they were released, and they continue to provide an essential platform for anyone interested in this aspect of the great European exploration of the Pacific region. Smith’s earlier work, European Vision and the South Pacific, also explores the way in which European artists responded to the challenge of representing the radically “new” landscapes that were opening up before their very eyes.
Like all true Renaissance men there were many strings to Bernard Smith’s bow, and his love of poetry and painting remained with him to the very end. During a visit he made to the Library earlier this year to see his books in their new home he delighted us all when he launched into one of his own poems, memory as sharp as a tack, declaiming the lines with all the drama and vigour of one of those Shakespearean actor-managers of old. The years seemed to drop away, and it was suddenly obvious to all of us how this one man had indeed managed to achieve so much in his extraordinary life.
I have listened to a creek at midnight
Murmur its tune
Walked down still aisles of pines
Of pine needles strewn
Heard the low moan of the westerly
Break in a whining croon
Seen snow white and shimmery
Thaw in the heat of noon
(Murraguldrie Pastorale 1, 1938)