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Barnett, Percy Neville (1881–1953)

by J. P. Holroyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Percy Neville Barnett (1881-1953), by J. R. T. Richardson

Percy Neville Barnett (1881-1953), by J. R. T. Richardson

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22921928

Percy Neville Barnett (1881-1953), author and book-plate authority, was born on 13 September 1881 at Christchurch, New Zealand, son of Neville Barnett and his wife Mary Constance Isabel, née Rahn. His father had migrated to New Zealand in 1875 and became organist at St John's Church, Christchurch, and later at St Matthew's, Auckland. The family moved to Sydney in 1887 when Barnett, an Anglican, was appointed organist at St Mary's Cathedral. He taught music and became a critic for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Percy Neville (known as Neville) was educated at Fort Street High School. In 1898 he entered the Bank of New South Wales, working in several branches until compelled by ill health to retire to Sydney from the Cooma office in 1918. On 3 June that year at St Michael's Church of England, Wollongong, Barnett married Gabrielle Joyce Havelock Vidal. Earlier, when a knee injury prevented him playing sport, he had taken up book collecting and the study of book-plates, and had developed a taste for fine editions. His enforced retirement enabled him to make an intensive study of his hobbies.

Barnett's publications were often issued in small de luxe and standard editions with genuine colour-prints pasted in by hand. They included The Bookplate in Australia … (1930), Pictorial Book-Plates (1931), the first general book on the subject issued in Australia, and Armorial Book-Plates … (1932). He spent ten years collecting the 102 different plates that he tipped-in to each of the 275 copies of Woodcut Book-Plates (1934): it had a foreword by Lionel Lindsay and represented the work of eighty artists in twenty countries. His major work, Australian Book-Plates … (1950), involved nine years research and the personal tipping-in of 30,000 examples, some of which he hand-coloured. He also issued elaborate souvenir brochures relating to his more important works.

In the 1930s Barnett became interested in Japanese wood-block colour-prints; he imported 40,000 prints and specially designed endpapers from Japan for a series of charming books including Japanese Colour-Prints (1936), Colour Prints of Hiroshige (1937), Hiroshige (1938), Figure Prints of Japan (1948) and Japanese Art (1953). Unable to replenish his stock during World War II, he had to restrict Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye (1940) and Nishiki-ye: Brocade Prints of Japan (1941) to eleven and fifteen copies.

Barnett not only wrote the text; he also designed and published each work, and signed and numbered each copy of limited editions. A perfectionist at a time when the second-rate satisfied many people, Barnett chose the best materials available: he procured type-fonts from Germany, used hand-made paper, and imported vellum from England, board from Scotland, silk from China and brocade from Japan. His books were printed in Sydney at the Beacon Press, whose proprietor H. P. Mortlock was a dedicated craftsman.

After an improvement in health, Barnett returned to the bank in 1933 as librarian at the head office, a post he retained for the rest of his life. He reorganized and widened the scope of the library, but his return to work gave him less time for his hobbies. Apologizing to a friend in 1939 for not having replied to a query, he wrote: 'these books are my excuse — a whole-time job with only one's leisure time to do them in'.

In 1951 his friends honoured him with a striking book-plate which had been designed by Gayfield Shaw. They also printed a booklet, P. Neville Barnett and His Books, containing tributes from admirers in Australia and abroad. Barnett's scarce and valuable publications have been keenly sought by collectors. They became highly regarded in the United States of America and elsewhere: Queen Mary, in particular, valued his productions. He received awards of merit in international competitions for book-plate designs and won world-wide repute as an authority. Honorary secretary of the Australian Ex Libris Society, in 1930 he edited its Journal, and was also vice-president of the New Zealand Ex Libris Society and of the Book-plate Association International, Los Angeles. In 1931-37 he was general secretary of the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society.

Barnett was a man of short stature, friendly and unassuming, and a Christian Scientist. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died at Mosman on 5 June 1953, and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £4911.

Select Bibliography

  • A Century of Journalism. The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd, 1931)
  • H. B. Muir, A Checklist of Ex Libris Literature Published in Australia (Adel, 1942)
  • A. Milgrom et al, P. Neville Barnett and His Books (Syd, 1951)
  • W. A. Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • G. Farmer, Private Presses and Australia (Melb, 1972)
  • Etruscan, Sept 1953
  • New Zealand Free Lance, 8 Apr 1948
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 7 June 1953
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1953
  • staff records (Bank of New South Wales Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

J. P. Holroyd, 'Barnett, Percy Neville (1881–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barnett-percy-neville-5140/text8603, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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