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Founder's Father

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Oil portrait of a grey haired man sitting at a table, a book open in front of him, a red drape behind.

DURATION: 4mins 38secs

Dr James Mitchell, 1854
by Marshall Claxton
oil on canvas
presented by the EC Merewether Estate Trustees, 1965
ML 7

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Mitchell Librarian

This is a portrait of Dr James Mitchell, who arrived in Sydney in 1821. He came to Australia as a military doctor, set up a private practice which flourished, and then he began to acquire land holdings in the Hunter Valley and many of those landholdings were pastoral and mining leases.

From the library’s perspective, he’s best known as the father of the library’s greatest benefactor, David Scott Mitchell. The Mitchell family saw themselves as one of the leading families in Sydney at the time and it’s not surprising that when this portrait was painted in 1854, that Dr Mitchell chose the then most fashionable and really possibly the leading portrait painter available in Sydney at the time – an English artist called Marshall Claxton.

The portrait, as you can see in front of you, is dramatically large and very imposing but also very conventional in the way it is composed and it signifies Mitchell at a book, with an inkwell, at a table, with a red drape behind him, all very conventional symbols, or allegories, if you like, of a man of some substance. The book kind of alludes to someone of intellectual pursuit. And this was the kind of portraiture that was commissioned across the British Empire and really across Europe, in a way. And any person who saw themselves in some way leader of any society would choose these quite formulaic ways of depicting themselves. And they’re all signifiers at someone looking at this thing – its size alone suggests the importance of Mitchell but the pose too – they’re all talking about his social position.

The frame in which it sits is beautifully elaborate and was actually made in New South Wales by a frame maker called Edwin Baldwin and it was exhibited in an exhibition in 1855, where it won a prize for its quality. So what you see in front of you is really a completely colonial fabrication.

Mitchell was clearly someone who valued scholarship and reading and so on and his son, David Scott Mitchell, who was born in 1836, ended up inheriting the fortune that Mitchell had made, and he began, after a fairly conventional education and youth, to collect extensively really Elizabethan literature, but as the colony moved towards the centenary of its establishment in 1888, he got more and more interested in Australiana and collecting books about Australia omnivorously and intelligently but really just looking for anything that he could see that was published in Australia.

I think the colonies, as we saw ourselves, I suppose as New South Wales saw itself as a colony, also felt that it needed to begin to write its own history because New South Wales also saw itself as a place that was going to become the empire of the southern seas. So it needed to write its own history, so people like Mitchell were trying to collect that history. Other collectors, Alfred Lee, Justice Wise, Thomas Whitely – there are a lot of people trying to do this, but Mitchell, I suppose, had the resources, single-mindedness – he never married – to pursue it in a degree that really no-one else has managed to capture.

 And he formed a strikingly important collection, which, upon his death in 1907, the entire collection was bequeathed to New South Wales, on the condition that a library called the Mitchell Library be established which would house his collection and obviously bear his name. And the Mitchell Library, which is really the greatest Australian research library, was established under or because of the generosity of David Scott Mitchell, and David Scott Mitchell’s generosity was really only possible because his father had done so well in the colony and allowed him as a gentleman, A, not to have to work and B, to be able to pursue this passion that he developed.

And I think one of the interesting things about David Scott Mitchell is the intelligence of his collecting. I mean, he was keen to get everything he possibly could and he, in fact, ended up as a recluse in Darlinghurst. Recluse in the sense that he didn’t participate in society but he was happy to receive visitors who were interested in his interests. He knew his collection intimately, so he was almost like a reference librarian in his own right and people would go and visit him and he would say, “This is what you need to look at.” So he knew what he’d collected. And I think that intelligence behind his collecting, in a way, has informed the way this library has then continued to collect. We remain, I believe, as curious as he was, and I think the kind of desire to collect intelligently and comprehensively is something that really most research libraries aspire to.

For me, David Scott Mitchell is a truly great Australian, much more so than sportsmen and so on, because he has given so much - unrecognised, in a sense, but fundamental to the way we see ourselves.