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Kirtley, John Thomas (1897–1967)

by John Arnold

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Thomas Kirtley (1897-1967), printer and patriot, was born on 3 September 1897 at Marrickville, Sydney, second child of Louis Russell Kirtley, a Sydney-born engineer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Dixon, from Ireland. John's parents were in the hotel trade and, after his father died in 1918, his mother—a Catholic—retained an interest in several hotels. Educated at East St Leonards Public School and St Aloysius' College, North Sydney, Kirtley worked as a stockbroker's clerk with Martyn & Brownhill. He was a keen reader and book-collector, and developed a desire to print his own fine books. A meeting with Jack, son of Norman Lindsay, in a Sydney bookshop in the early 1920s led to the foundation of his press.

Kirtley taught himself the rudiments of printing on a Chandler and Price platen press. His first publication was a collection of Jack's verse, Fauns and Ladies (1923). Limited to 210 copies, with woodcuts by Norman Lindsay, the book appeared under the imprint of 'The Handpress of J. T. Kirtley', as did Kenneth Slessor's first book, Thief of the Moon (1924). Two further books of verse followed: Raymond McGrath's Seven Songs of Meadow Lane and Seven Poems by Dora Wilcox.

Kirtley's next publication was a deluxe, limited edition of Aristophanes's Lysistrata, translated by Jack Lindsay. A large folio, it was printed on a Golding platen Kirtley had bought especially. Concerned about his stockbroker employers' reaction to the book's subject matter, Kirtley issued it under the imprint of the Fanfrolico Press, a name suggested by Norman Lindsay's bawdy collection of tales relating to the Duke of Fanfrolico in the imaginary court of Micomicon. Kirtley and Jack Lindsay decided to transfer the press to London. Arriving in May 1926, Kirtley took an office in Bloomsbury Square. Another edition of Lysistrata was followed by Slessor's Earth Visitors and a deluxe edition of The Complete Works of Gaius Petronius, translated by Lindsay.

In mid-1927 Kirtley handed the business over to Lindsay and returned to Australia via the United States of America. He managed hotels for his mother in Sydney, but the business failed. On 30 April 1929 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Phillip Street, he married Isabel Young, a clerk. The marriage broke up shortly after the birth of their son in 1930 and the couple divorced in 1941. Kirtley lived with his mother at Woy Woy, planning to write fiction, then worked intermittently for P. R. Stephensen.

Because of this association, Kirtley was linked to the right-wing, nationalist Australia First Movement during World War II. He was not a formal member of the movement, but some intemperate personal letters and possession of the movement's publications led to his arrest on 10 March 1942 and his internment for almost two years. The experience, with its forced separation from his teenage son, embittered him.

After the war Kirtley briefly edited a musical magazine and then managed a chicken farm. About 1948 he moved to Victoria, living in a house at Ferntree Gully owned by J. K. Moir, who encouraged him to establish the Mountainside Press. The effort of printing Robert FitzGerald's Heemskerck Shoals (1949), one of the finest books ever produced in Australia, was too much for the perfectionist Kirtley. Except for a few ephemeral pieces, he abandoned printing and moved closer to the city.

On 10 January 1955 at the Unitarian Church, East Melbourne, he married Jean Rich, a ledger-keeper. Through Moir, he obtained a clerical position with Payne's Bon Marche department store. People magazine described him as 'a chubby little man' who enjoyed punting on the horses. In the late 1950s, encouraged by Harry Chaplin, a Sydney book-collector, Kirtley wrote a detailed and at times vituperative history of the Fanfrolico Press; the State Library of Queensland holds the unpublished manuscript. He died of coronary artery disease on 27 August 1967 at Camberwell and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and son survived him. Kirtley deserves to be remembered as a fine printer rather than as a puzzled patriot.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots (Melb, 1968)
  • J. Lindsay, Life Rarely Tells (Melb, 1982)
  • G. Farmer, A True Printer (Syd, 1990)
  • People (Sydney), 2 Aug 1950, p 33
  • C421, items 12 and 55 (National Archives of Australia)
  • J. Arnold, History of the Fanfrolico Press (manuscript, privately held)
  • J. K. Moir collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • Kirtley papers (State Library of Queensland).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Arnold, 'Kirtley, John Thomas (1897–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirtley-john-thomas-13026/text23551, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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