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Stevens, Bertram William Mathyson Francis (1872–1922)

by Ken Stewart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Bertram William Mathyson Francis Stevens (1872-1922), literary and art critic, was born on 8 October 1872 at Inverell, New South Wales, eldest child of William Mathyson Stevens, an English-born storekeeper, and his wife Marian, née Cafe, from Queanbeyan. By 1882 the family had moved to Newtown, Sydney; he was educated at public schools. From 1895 to 1910 he worked as a solicitor's clerk for Allen, Allen & Hemsley, but also immersed himself in books, freelanced as a journalist and mixed with literary people. David Scott Mitchell gave him access to his library of Australiana. Stevens campaigned for Henry George's 'land nationalisation', temporarily converted his friend Henry Lawson to the cause and in 1897 edited several issues of the Single Tax. With John Le Gay Brereton as his best man, on 2 April 1902 at Guildford Stevens married Florence Edith Wogoman with Congregational forms; Bertram shaved off his moustache and 'imperial' beard at Edith's request.

A founding member of the Dawn and Dusk Club in 1899 and of the Casuals Club in 1906, Bert was, as Lawson remarked, 'a Bohemian at heart', but 'didn't look the part, and couldn't speak the lines very well. He could relax with the rest of us, but he couldn't be reckless'. Stevens helped sundry ill and needy writers and their families. In 1903 he advised Bertha Lawson to seek a decree for judicial separation from Henry; he was later a force behind schemes to rehabilitate Henry at Mallacoota and Yanco. After John Farrell's death Stevens edited Farrell's My Sundowner and Other Poems (1904) and arranged government assistance for the family. As Victor Daley's literary executor, he edited Daley's verse as Wine and Roses (1911) and raised £30 for his widow which encouraged Alfred Deakin to form the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

A proficient, lucid critic, Stevens was pre-eminently a cultural catalyst and pioneer who perceived needs and lacunae. His An Anthology of Australian Verse (1906), although uneven, was the first seriously edited collection of its kind; improved as The Golden Treasury of Australian Verse (1909), it became a standard text. In 1907 he edited the first five issues of the Native Companion (Melbourne), but difficulties in working from Sydney forced his resignation. Editor of the Bulletin's 'Red Page' in 1909-10, he was less successful, at a bad time, than its originator Alfred George Stephens, though he did promote Louis Esson and Bernard O'Dowd. Stephens in the Bookfellow lambasted his 1912-18 editing of the declining Lone Hand, without acknowledging wartime problems, poor contributions and competition from the cinema. Stevens' editorials and articles vigorously supported the war effort and conscription; he published Christopher Brennan's 'A Chant of Doom' and Norman Lindsay's illustrations.

From 1916 Stevens edited Art in Australia with Sydney Ure Smith; his commentaries and experience were essential to this first effective, widespread display of Australian art in periodical form, and to its discussion of established and contemporary influences. Culturally conservative but open-minded, Stevens was inaugurating editor of the Home in 1920; in it he published W. Somerset Maugham's critique of paintings in Art in Australia. Lindsay was appalled, and attacked Stevens' liberal Christian eclecticism, deriding him as 'an epitome of the whole human race, muddled, helpless, moribund and stupid'; he unsuccessfully sought to have Art in Australia renamed 'Vision' and to have his son Jack replace Stevens as editor. (Stevens had brought Norman and Jack together after their estrangement, edited Norman's pen drawings in 1918 and encouraged him to write fiction.)

Having left the Lone Hand, Stevens edited Commerce, produced de luxe publications for Art in Australia Ltd, wrote weekly items for the Sydney Mail and freelanced. He included biographical research and uncollected poems in his 1920 edition of Henry Kendall's verse. Stevens' projected history of Australian literature was never completed. The 'gentle anthologist' died of cerebral haemorrhage and chronic nephritis on 14 February 1922 and was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him: they were assisted by the Bertram Stevens Memorial Fund and by George Robertson's purchase of Stevens' papers for the Mitchell Library. Lawson, who had once assaulted Stevens with a walking-stick, wrote a warm confessional tribute in the Bulletin; Norman Lindsay avoided the funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Prout, Henry Lawson, the Grey Dreamer (Adel, 1963)
  • C. Mann (ed), The Stories of Henry Lawson, Third Series (Syd, 1964)
  • R. Lindsay, Model Wife (Syd, 1967)
  • R. D. FitzGerald (ed), The Letters of Hugh McCrae (Syd, 1970)
  • K. Taylor, A History with Indexes of the Lone Hand, the Australian Monthly (Melb, 1977)
  • R. G. Howarth and A. W. Barker (eds), Letters of Norman Lindsay (Syd, 1979)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan, a Critical Biography (Melb, 1980)
  • Home (Sydney), 1 Mar 1922, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb 1922
  • Bulletin, 23 Feb, 2 Mar 1922, 5 Aug 1953
  • B. Stevens papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. Le Gay Brereton (the younger) papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lothian Publishing Co. papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Ken Stewart, 'Stevens, Bertram William Mathyson Francis (1872–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevens-bertram-william-mathyson-francis-8651/text15127, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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