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Stanley Clive Turnbull (1906–1975)

by Peter Ryan

This article was published:

Stanley Clive Perry Turnbull (1906-1975), journalist, author, poet and critic, was born on 22 December 1906 at Glenorchy, Tasmania, son of James Arthur Perry Turnbull, a Tasmanian-born orchardist, and his wife Isabella Urquhart, née Holt, who came from Canada. The family traced its ancestry to colonial gentry in Van Diemen's Land, to Boston loyalists who migrated to Quebec during the American Revolution, and, farther back, to marauders on the Scottish borders.

Clive was educated in Hobart at Leslie House School, The Hutchins School and Christ College. He became a reporter on the Mercury in 1922, moved to the Argus (Melbourne) in 1926, and in 1932 began his association with the Melbourne Herald and its chief, (Sir) Keith Murdoch. The association—briefly interrupted by wartime duties as press officer (1940) to Essington Lewis and as Far Eastern representative (1940-41) of Australian Associated Press Pty Ltd—was to last until 1949. He had a term as the Herald's man in London and toured Europe for the newspaper in 1936.

Turnbull lived for a time in the old 'Paris end' of Collins Street, frequenting the fringes of its mild bohemia. He was friendly with the family of John Wren, especially with Wren's daughter Mary. On 16 June 1938 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Joyce Ellen Hammond; they lived at Hawthorn, in a graceful Victorian-period house beside the Yarra River.

In some sense Melbourne's journalistic doyen, Turnbull was a respected writer of special articles which sustained the Herald's high reputation as a quality broadsheet. He produced, however, a great body of work far transcending journalism—books of history, biography, art criticism and poetry. In 1933 he had published Outside Looking In, an elegant volume of fifteen poems, but no further verse appeared until 14 Poems in 1944. This tiny oeuvre sufficed for one critic to say (as it had been written of A. E. Housman) that 'though he may have had few strings to his lyre, those he had were of pure gold'.

Black War (1948) was an indignant but scholarly exposure of White atrocity in Turnbull's home island. An engaging series of six 'bijou' biographies, published in 1945-48, included lives of Francis Adams, Peter Lalor and Paddy Hannan. A keen subscriber to the Ned Kelly myth, Turnbull produced the bibliography Kellyana in 1943. He wrote numerous books, pamphlets and articles on Australian painters and painting, notably Art Here, from Buvelot to Nolan (1947); he contributed to The Art of Rupert Bunny (Sydney, 1948) and to a larger survey, Antipodean Vision (1962); and he published an elegantly illustrated Concise History of Australia (1965). These works are only a small selection from his large output.

Murdoch had given Turnbull the role of art critic (1942) at the Herald, in addition to his duties as a staff writer. To friends, Turnbull disclosed a hearty dislike of Murdoch, and in a man so shrewd as Sir Keith it is impossible that the antipathy remained undetected. Yet his new art critic was given scope and support over many years, and was consulted on Murdoch's own art purchases. Turnbull's appreciation of the Australian modern art movement was warm, but he was no undiscriminating 'Angry Penguin'. Although he praised, for example, (Sir) Sidney Nolan's 'Ned Kelly' series, he thought that much of the art boom during and after World War II was meretricious. He believed that (Sir) Ivor Hele's drawings and paintings constituted the finest artistic expression of the direct experience of battle.

In 1949 the London Daily Mirror group of companies bought the Argus, with Turnbull's crucial help in their purchase of a controlling block of shares. He joined the Argus as editorial adviser and was acting-editor in 1951. The new English owners failed to cope with the unfamiliar Australian milieu, and Turnbull left in 1952. Thereafter he undertook occasional journalism, wrote book reviews for the Age and attended to his private business interests, among them a public relations consultancy whose clients included the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd and the University of Melbourne. The latter engagement was short-lived, and his comment on resigning it illustrated his famous vein of comic irascibility: 'I'll never work for a university again until they abolish the long vacation; it gives academics too much spare time to plot the undoing of sensible reforms'.

Turnbull's opinions in general were of liberal-radical bent, and his Saturday 'Free Speech' column in the Herald was widely read. Despite the tensions of the Cold War, and the sharply different views of Murdoch, it was never interrupted. Joyce Turnbull had active communist associations, and partly for that reason Clive was summonsed before the (Petrov) royal commission on espionage on 18 January 1955. He felt keenly the absurdity and indignity of having to appear. Always the scholar, he accumulated a library of Australiana which brought nearly $300,000 at auction in 1981. Late in life he acquired a retreat on Victoria's wild south coast near Port Campbell, explaining the move to a friend characteristically: 'It had a windmill, buddy. It didn't work, but it creaked. It seemed so Australian'.

In any gathering, Turnbull was a 'presence'. Substantial of build, pale of complexion, with rather prominent eyes and a striking black moustache, he thought that he 'looked like a Frenchman'. While he was convivial in newspapermen's bars and in restaurants, there lay not far beneath the surface a sombre melancholy. His deeply complex character arose partly from his passion for ancient tradition and the values of a gentleman; both were at odds with industrial society—generator, as he saw it, of little but vulgarity, unemployment and war. In his own lines:

Metal does not mate with flesh.
No mirror's dimmer for our breath.
I would have lived in the world's morning
instead of at the world's death!

This insightful Australian, author of countless acts of private generosity and understanding, died of cancer on 25 May 1975 at Hawthorn and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, their two sons and one of their two daughters survived him. Noel Counihan's portrait of Turnbull is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Aug 1958, 18 Sept 1965
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 May 1975
  • Mercury (Hobart), 26 May 1975, 2 Oct 1981
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Peter Ryan, 'Turnbull, Stanley Clive (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 December, 1906
Glenorchy, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


25 May, 1975 (aged 68)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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