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Barrett Reid (1926–1995)

by Dianne Reilly

This article was published:

Barrett Reid, by Albert Tucker, 1984

Barrett Reid, by Albert Tucker, 1984

State Library of Victoria

Barrett Reid (1926–1995), poet, librarian, editor, and arts critic, was born on 8 December 1926 at Eagle Junction (Clayfield), Brisbane, younger child of George Barrett Reid, newsagent and stationer, and his wife Effie Alberta Minnie, née Collins, both born in Queensland. Sir George Reid, a former premier of New South Wales and prime minister of Australia, was a great uncle. Barrie’s mother, who also had a daughter from a previous relationship, died in 1928. The three children were raised by George, a rationalist and a lover of poetry and music, who cultivated in them a love of the arts.

Educated at Chermside and Windsor State schools and Brisbane State High School (1940–43), Reid was an editor of the high school magazine Senior Tabloid, which from its fifth number in August 1943 was renamed Barjai: A Meeting Place for Youth. With a fellow student, Laurence Collinson, an aspiring poet, playwright, and artist, Reid was the precocious co-editor of this radical arts journal, which soon severed its ties with BSHS and acquired a wider readership. A bohemian ‘Barjai Group’ of young people, up-and-coming writers and artists, met regularly at the Lyceum Club, and established links with other literary journals, including Angry Penguins and Meanjin Papers, to which Reid contributed poems in 1944. Barjai ceased publication with issue 23 in 1946 due to a lack of financial support.

In December 1946 and January 1947, on a hitch-hiking trip to Adelaide and Melbourne with the artist Laurence Hope, Reid met a number of artists, including Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, and Joy Hester, who were to become lifelong friends. He visited the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed at their home, Heide, in Melbourne, where (Sir) Sidney Nolan was painting his Ned Kelly series, a deeply formative experience for Reid as he and Nolan became close friends. Back in Brisbane, he worked at the Public Library and in a bookshop with his partner Charles Osborne, who was later a journalist and arts critic.

Reid moved to Melbourne in 1951. The next year he joined the staff of the Melbourne Public Library (later the State Library of Victoria), where he worked in most departments, taking on appointments as chief cataloguer in 1961 and as the first executive officer of the public libraries division from 1967. His breadth of interests, taste, and activities influenced his vision of making books and ideas and works of art available to all. Among many public roles, he was a founding member (1973) of the National Book Council and a member (1974–78) of the literature board of the Australia Council. A network of municipal libraries across Victoria was his greatest achievement in the public sphere. When he retired in 1982 due to ill health, 207 of Victoria's 211 local councils provided a library service. He was appointed AM in 1983.

Throughout his library career, Reid maintained his literary interests. With Max Harris and John Reed, he was co-editor (1952–55) of the short-lived Ern Malley’s Journal, to which he contributed poems and reviews. Although he rarely published his own work after the 1950s, he was poetry editor (1965–88) of Overland, taking on the role of editor (1988–93) following the death of Stephen Murray-Smith. As editor, he brought to Overland ‘a new aesthetic emphasis, which was evident in the enhanced visual appearance of the magazine’ (Barnes 1999, 31), and introduced Overland Extra, which featured new writers. He was a prominent art critic and curated a Perceval retrospective exhibition for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1992. Shortly before his death, he received an honorary degree from the University of Melbourne (LLD, 1995).

Barrett Reid was a reserved person, but with strongly held ideas which he expressed with grace and courtesy. An experienced negotiator and consummate political operator of great determination, he mixed easily at every level to achieve his goals for public libraries in Victoria. He was renowned for his encouragement of young artists, writers, and librarians. As well as possessing a wry sense of humour, he was knowledgeable about plants and had a great love of gardening. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, he had deep personal relationships with both men and women. An intensely private man, he kept his professional life separate from his creative activities and personal life, but Philip Jones, his long-term partner from the mid-1950s until 1984, wrote about their bisexuality and their relationships in his 2004 memoir.

After the deaths of his friends John and Sunday Reed in December 1981, Reid made his home in their original cottage at Heide, adjacent to the more recent home that had become a public gallery. Following years of suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he died of bowel cancer at Bulleen on 6 August 1995 and was cremated. A collection of his poems, Making Country (1995), was published posthumously, as was Letters of John Reed: Defining Australian Cultural Life, 1920–1981 (2001), which he compiled and edited with Nancy Underhill. His collection of books, papers, correspondence, and artistic works is held by the State Library of Victoria and the Heide Museum of Modern Art. He is commemorated by the SLV’s biennial Barrett Reid scholarship for library professionals, established in 2001, and an annual award for poetry, which was inaugurated by Overland in 2008.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Michele Elizabeth. ‘Barjai, Miya Studio and Young Brisbane Artists of the 1940s: Towards a Radical Practice.’ BA Honours thesis, University of Queensland, 1987
  • Arndt, Rona. ‘His Father’s Son: From a letter to Shelton Lea.’ Overland 142 (Autumn 1996): 35
  • Barnes, John. ‘From Barjai to Overland: A Note on Barrie Reid.’ La Trobe Journal 64 (Spring 1999): 30–32
  • Harding, Lesley, and Kendrah Morgan. Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed. Carlton, Vic.: The Miegunyah Press, 2015
  • Papps, Phyllis. ‘Barrett Reid: A Charismatic Chameleon.’ La Trobe Journal 87 (May 2011): 136–48
  • Philip, John. ‘Barrett Reid—A Memoir.’ Overland, no. 142 (Autumn 1996): 31–34
  • State Library Victoria. MS 13186, Reid, Barrett. Papers, 1924–1995

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Dianne Reilly, 'Reid, Barrett (1926–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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