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Bolton, Alexander Thorley (Alec) (1926–1996)

by Daniel Oakman

This article was published online in 2022

Alexander Thorley Bolton (1926–1996), editor, publisher, and library administrator, was born on 22 January 1926 at Drummoyne, Sydney, younger son of New South Wales-born parents, Alexander Thorley Bolton (d. 1933), clerk, and his wife Amy Gertrude, née Crouch. Alec junior grew up in Hunters Hill and attended Coogee Preparatory School. He won a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School and in his final year (1943) was stroke of the rowing eight, an officer of cadets, and a prefect. On 6 March 1944 he was mobilised in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve for duty in World War II. Posted to HMAS Echuca, he saw active service surveying the Arafura and Timor seas and minesweeping in Bass Strait. He rose to the rank of sub-lieutenant before his appointment was terminated in February 1947.

After the war Bolton juggled studying at the University of Sydney (BA 1950) with caring for his ailing mother. He also penned scripts for children’s radio serials and published poetry in the Bulletin. Soon after graduation, he joined Angus & Robertson Ltd, then one of Australia’s largest publishers, reading and reporting on manuscripts. While training as a copy editor, he came under the influence of Beatrice Davis, the firm’s editor and a significant figure in Sydney literary circles. There he met his lifelong partner, the poet Rosemary de Brissac Dobson, a reader at the firm. She was described by Bolton as the ‘first sun that came over the horizon’ (1996, 32); they married on 12 June 1951 at St Augustine’s Anglican Church, Neutral Bay.

From 1953 Bolton was part of the team responsible for a new edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia, Angus & Robertson’s flagship publication, and spent five years working with authors, copy-editing, researching, and writing. He was mentored by the graphic designer and production manager, Henry Mund, whose knowledge of bookmaking and design made a significant impression. Bolton’s time at the firm was transformative: ‘Nothing would ever afterwards come close to that’ (Richards 2017), he recalled. However, in 1960, unhappy with the new management, he resigned to work for a rival publisher, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.

Bolton rejoined Angus & Robertson in 1966 when the company invited him to head their London office, to revive local publishing and improve sales of Australian titles in Britain. Increasingly interested in the technical aspects of book production, he trained at the London College of Printing as an evening student. Returning to Australia, he became the inaugural director of publications at the National Library of Australia (NLA), Canberra, in October 1971. Over the next sixteen years, he oversaw the production of the Australian National Bibliography and several elegant books drawn from the library’s manuscript and rare book collections.

Concurrent with his job, Bolton established Brindabella Press from his Deakin home in 1973; the view of the Brindabella Range to the west inspired the name. Initially he set the type himself and printed small editions by hand on a 1920s foot-operated Chandler and Price treadle platen press. The first publication was 150 copies of his wife’s Three Poems on Water-Springs. In later years, he used machine-set type and experimented with photopolymer typesetting, but continued to print by hand. He commissioned hand binders and worked with Australian artists such as Barbara Hanrahan, Rosalind Atkins, and Mike Hudson to illustrate his books.

From 1978 to 1981 Bolton wrote an occasional column called ‘Bookshapes’ for the Australian Book Review. Using the pseudonym ‘Martin Em,’ he discussed the principles of book design and the impact of rapidly changing publishing technology. The Australian (Book) Publishers Association recognised his commitment to making quality books with a design award for James McAuley’s Time Given: Poems 19701976 in 1978, and would induct him into its hall of fame in 1995.

Brindabella Press quickly transcended its local origins. Bolton’s early intention to focus on lesser-known writers with connections to the Canberra region broadened to encompass poets and prose writers of national importance. They included Alec Hope, Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, David Campbell, Les Murray, Manning Clark, Geoffrey Serle, and Christina Stead. Alongside this, he developed an interest in photography, taking a series of portrait studies of Australian writers.

Bolton’s press was an informal concern: ‘a press run by someone who prints to please himself’ (Richards 1993, 15), as he described it. The informality extended to administrative matters. In 1985, having neglected to register Brindabella Press as a business name, he discovered that another Canberra-based printer was using the same title. Forced to find an alternative, he published as Officina Brindabella (after the Italian word for printing workshop) until 1992, when he reclaimed the original name.

After retiring from the NLA in 1987 Bolton devoted his energies to Brindabella Press. Although its output remained small, producing twenty-eight works in its twenty-three years of operation, it developed a reputation as one of Australia’s most successful private presses. His modest and unassuming demeanour tempered a perfectionist streak. As a publisher, he strove to improve his craft. He believed that a good book was one in which the content, design, and production all worked together to produce a harmonious experience for the reader.

On 8 November 1996 Bolton was elected as an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities for his contribution to publishing. He died ten days later after suffering a heart attack while working in the garden of his daughter’s Canberra home. His wife, two sons, and one of his two daughters survived him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Alec. Brindabella Press: The Name Regained and Other News, Canberra: Brindabella Press, 1992
  • Bolton, Alec. Interview by Heather Rusden, 1996. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Bolton, Alec. ‘Publishing in an Age of Innocence: Angus & Robertson in the 1950s.’ Publishing Studies, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 12–20
  • Hefner, Robert. ‘ACT Printer Alec Bolton Dies at 70.’ Canberra Times, 22 November 1996, 6
  • Mulvaney, John. ‘Alec Thorley Bolton, 1926–1996.’ In Proceedings, 57–58. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1996
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, BOLTON A T
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7426, Papers of Alec Bolton, 1971–1997
  • O’Connor, Mark. ‘Alec Bolton on Brindabella Press.’ National Library of Australia News, March 1995, 40–42
  • Richards, Michael. ‘Hall of Fame—Alec Bolton.’ ABDA Blog. Australian Book Designers Association. 24 August 2017. Accessed 6 May 2022. https://abda.com.au/hall-fame-alec-bolton/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Richards, Michael. A Licence to Print: Alec Bolton and the Brindabella Press, Canberra: Friends of the National Library of Australia, 1993
  • Souter, Gavin. 'Publisher Aimed for Perfection.' Australian, 25 November 1996, 14
  • Thompson, Frank. ‘Australian Publishing Loses Alec Bolton.’ Canberra Times, 24 November 1996, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

Daniel Oakman, 'Bolton, Alexander Thorley (Alec) (1926–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bolton-alexander-thorley-alec-32427/text40216, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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