State Library acquires Barry Jones’ massive autograph collection
National treasure, political statesman, polymath, quiz show champ, walking dictionary of biography and former federal minister Barry Jones walks into an anteroom of the State Library of Victoria to survey his collection of 878 autographs.
Almost everybody who was anybody is contained within the 12 bound volumes, which the library has purchased for an undisclosed sum to form part of its $400 million collection.
Former ALP president and federal minister Barry Jones peruses his collection at the State Library of Victoria.Credit:Scott McNaughton
Jones started on his quest as a boy in the 1940s and his collection, with its careful annotations in his impeccable handwriting, are a topography of those who rose to prominence in modern history.
A printed card from George Bernard Shaw explains all the reasons why the playwright cannot engage in correspondence after Jones wrote to him to tell him about his school play. But then he scrawled in response over the typed card: “Pygmalion should be performed in its entirety or not at all.”
Poet W.H. Auden sent him a clerihew, a form of short comic verse, in 1952.
There is also Winston Churchill’s farewell letter to French marshal Ferdinand Foch – who couldn’t read English. A signed photo of Vivien Leigh sits beside a letter from the 1st Viscount Malvern of Rhodesia.
Vivien Leigh’s signature sits opposite the 1st Viscount Malvern of Rhodesia.Credit:Scott McNaughton
There’s Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale, JFK, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.
What did all these famous names teach Jones about the inner lives of the great and the good?
Answer: people have complexities.
“It’s not just cause and effect. People have multiple causes and multiple effects,” says the 90-year-old, who was a state and federal MP, science minister in the Hawke government and later national president of the Australian Labor Party.
He collected up until the 1990s and his celebrity stint on early TV quiz show Pick a Box in the 1960s boosted his collection as TV viewers sent them in.
Does he regard himself as a polymath?
“The term has been used sometimes sardonically but there’s an element of truth in it. I know a lot of stuff. It’s an insatiable curiosity that drives me on.”
Jones arrived at the State Library last week bearing a gift: he cast aside his walking stick and produced a brick of a book out of a cloth bag.
It’s the Dictionary of World Biography (ninth edition) from publisher ANU Press, which perhaps the library might like for its permanent collection? The author: B. Jones.
“When I was a kid, the norms would be playing football. I would be here in the State Library,” he said.
“I had the whole of the world literally in one spot.”
Does he think there are any junior Joneses out there now?
“I’m a bit doubtful. The current cohort of young people experience everything digitally,” he said.
“Sometimes you talk to them about a pen and an autograph and a lot of them they don’t know what you are talking about. It’s problematic.”
The Jones collection was purchased in 2020 after a donation drive and late last year the cataloguing – enabling all the searching of autography via an online database that trawls the library website – was completed.
“Barry Jones is a significant contributor to Victorian society over a very long professional history,” says Toni Burton, the library’s collection curation and engagement manager.
“It has enduring interest and is very suitable for display in our exhibitions,” she said of the collection.
“It is almost like a relic of the person. It offers an insight into Barry’s own collecting interest.”
The sale price of the independently valued collection was not disclosed.
“The value of the collection is its cultural significance and not its financial value,” Burton said.
The number of autograph collections the library acquires will decline, chief executive Paul Duldig admits.
“Even if they are out of fashion now, fashions change and fashions come back,” he said.
Paul Keating is one of many prime ministers in the collection. Here a scribbled diagram Keating passed to Jones while in a cabinet meeting. Credit:Scott McNaughton
“I don’t think this is the end necessarily of autographs, but it is not going to be something that comes up all that often, particularly in relation to a figure of national prominence based in Victoria.”
Duldig said the library was attracted to collections based on set criteria: “How much does it tell us about a person, how much does it tell us about the times, how much does it tell us about Victoria?”
“Technologically, the way people provide the archives to us have obviously changed dramatically. [Author] Peter Carey’s archive was basically his laptop.”
Prime ministers are well represented. There are letters from Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, and a scribbled diagram from Paul Keating apparently doodled while in cabinet with references to “Victoria” and “Wages & Taxation” – and well wishes to Jones in the bottom corner.
There is even a menu signed by fleeting Frank Forde, who was prime minister for a week in 1945.
At the dinner in Parliament House that the Labor Party hosted for former British prime minister Clement Attlee in 1954, Jones, a junior ALP member at the time, went around getting various Labor luminaries to sign the menu (“poached schnapper with lobster sauce, coffee fruit cup”). Wasn’t he nervous approaching these senior people?
“No, Whitlam was getting people to sign his menu as well. It was probably the first time I met him.”
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