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John Samuel Gartner (1914–1998)

by John Arnold

This article was published online in 2023

John Samuel Gartner (1913–1998), publisher and collector, was born on 16 July 1913 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, third of four surviving children of Samuel Stephen Gartner, linotype operator, and Elizabeth Frances Shelley, both Victorian born. Samuel had previously married Matilda Grace Smith, but as Catholics they could not divorce. Samuel and Elizabeth lived together as man and wife, marrying only after Matilda Gartner died in 1923. Of their four children who survived infancy, only John (or Jack as he was known) and his elder brother reached adulthood. The death of his elder sister from tuberculosis in 1925 had a profound effect on his father, who also succumbed to the disease in 1927.

Following education at St Brigid’s School, North Fitzroy (1919–27), Gartner began a printing apprenticeship with his father’s former employer, the Advocate Press, publisher of the Catholic newspaper the Advocate. He subsequently enrolled (1931–33) at the printing school of the Working Men’s College and in his spare time attended the Public Library of Victoria, studying its extensive collections of early printing under the guiding eye of the assistant librarian and incunabula expert A. B. Foxcroft. In 1934 he was founding secretary of the Victorian branch of the Printing Industry Craftsmen’s Association.

In 1936 Gartner bought a nineteenth-century Albion hand press, imported some Caslon type from America, and began printing and publishing books and pamphlets from the family home in Preston. The next year on 4 September he married Sheila Elizabeth Kost, a typist, at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, North Fitzroy. The newlyweds moved into a house they had built in Tooronga Road, Hawthorn East, and Gartner christened his new venture the Hawthorn Press. While continuing to work for the Advocate Press, in his spare time he produced numerous booklets of verse and pamphlets relating to early printing, and to Victorian and Australian history. Many of the authors he published were associated with either the Melbourne-based arts and literary Bread and Cheese Club or the Brisbane-based Catholic Readers’ and Writers’ Society. These early Hawthorn Press imprints would later be sought after by collectors.

The Hawthorn Press became a full-time operation in 1945 when Gartner bought the Morris Press in Guildford Lane, Melbourne, and moved his business into the city. The Hawthorn Press Pty Ltd was incorporated that year, with Gartner and his brother William, an accountant, as directors. Gartner tried to continue producing his limited editions from the new premises, but the returns were modest, so he switched to commercial and general book printing with a focus on producing books for Australian publishers such as F. W. Cheshire Pty Ltd and Angus and Robertson Ltd. A further move was made to larger premises in Bourke Street in 1968. The press issued more than four hundred titles, including many commissioned histories, as well as various serials.

Gartner collected fine books and built up a large collection of private press books. He linked his press publications to his two other main interests: stamp and coin collecting. In addition to limited editions relating to philately, from 1949 the firm published Philately from Australia for the Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria (RPSV). Gartner’s own collecting focused on stamps of the Australian states, the Pacific Islands, and British Asian colonies. His Western Australian and Fijian collections won awards at world exhibitions, the former selling in Geneva in 1979 for $700,000.

Described by a colleague as ‘the face of Australian philately’ (Breckon 1998, 13), Gartner was thrice president (1959, 1973 and 1980) of the RPSV and a recipient of its J. R. W. Purves (1970) and the David H. Hill (1974) medals. He served (1965–79) on the Australia Post stamp advisory committee and in 1976 was added to the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists at the Philatelic Congress of Great Britain. A noted numismatist, he achieved the rare honour of being a fellow of both the Royal Numismatic Society and the Royal Philatelic Society of London. In 1964 he founded and printed the Australian Coin Review.

In 1973 Gartner, having divorced his first wife the previous year, married Zelma Rowley, a long-time Hawthorn Press employee. In 1979 he closed his press, taking some type and a printing machine to his new home at Mount Macedon. He intended to handprint booklets and pamphlets, but health problems thwarted these plans, and he produced only some ephemeral pieces. During the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, the Gartners’ house was burnt to the ground and the couple survived only by sheltering under blankets in their swimming pool. All of Gartner’s stamps, coins, and books were lost, including precious examples of early typefaces. He started collecting again but in 1984 thieves stole his second stamp collection. Undaunted, he began a third collection, focusing on stamps from Zanzibar and Zululand.

Dissatisfied with the rebuild of their Mount Macedon home, the Gartners moved to a property at nearby Mount Bullengarook. They also travelled the world buying examples of early printing, building up a small but important collection of incunabula. A highlight was a 42-line Bible printed by Peter Schöffer in 1472, later donated to the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne. Gartner also assembled an outstanding collection of bookplates, including some he commissioned from major artists working in that genre such as Mark Severin.

Suffering from both heart disease and dementia, Gartner died on 2 February 1998 at Sunbury, Victoria, and was buried in Gisborne cemetery. He was survived by his second wife and two daughters and a son from his first marriage. A younger son, a compositor with the Hawthorn Press, predeceased him (1997). The RPSV established the John Gartner medal for philatelic literature in his memory.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Breckon, Richard. ‘Bushfire Did Not Faze “Face of Philately.”’ Australian, 19 February 1998, 13
  • Gartner, John. ‘The Joy of Doing: A Talk Given to the Victorian Printing Historical Society, State Library of Victoria, 22 June 1988.’ Transcript. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gartner, Paul. Personal communication
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Stamp of Local Quality.’ 18 February 1998, 63
  • Keain, Maurice B. comp. Bibliography of the Hawthorn Press. Norton Summit, SA: Marble Hill Press, 1996
  • Kells, Stuart. ‘John Gartner.’ In Australian Book Collectors: Some Noted Australian Book Collectors & Collections of the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries, edited by Charles Stitz, 115-16. Bendigo, Vic.: Bread Street Press in association with Australian Book Auction Records, 2010
  • Philately from Australia. ‘John Gartner 1914–1998.’ 50, no. 1 (March 1998): 2–3
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘John Gartner: 1914–1998.’ 9 February 1998, 41

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Arnold, 'Gartner, John Samuel (1914–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 20 April 2024.

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