The Dixson collection is one of world's most extensive Australiana collections, made up of books, relics and fascinating curios
What is the Dixson Collection?
The Sir William Dixson Collection includes the Dixson Galleries (1929) and the Dixson Library (1959).
The Dixson Collection was donated to the Public (now State) Library of NSW by wealthy Sydney-born engineer and businessman Sir William Dixson (1870-1952). It came to the library in various stages including during his lifetime, a bequeath in his will and more items were purchased since his death from endowment funds. The Dixson Collection is a closed collection. The Library no longer adds to this collection.
What sets them apart?
The Dixson Collection contains an amazing array of material, from books and pamphlets to coins and rare colonial artworks. Sir William Dixson only began collecting Australiana in his 30s. From 1903 until his death aged eighty-two in 1952, as his income increased and his business requirements with his family’s tobacco company eased, Dixson’s leisure hours were given over to his consuming pursuit of building one of the world’s most extensive Australiana collections.
Dixson’s interests were not confined to books and manuscripts. Fascinated by Australian and Pacific history (particularly early European exploration) and, after the early 1900s, in Aboriginal languages and customs, he collected across a wide range of formats. Sir William’s bowerbird tendencies are particularly evident in his collections of relics and curios.
The Dixson Library
The Dixson Library opened in 1959. It showcased Sir William Dixson’s substantial personal collection of printed items including: books; magazines and journals; government reports; pamphlets; posters; performance programs; sheet music; newspaper cuttings, book jackets; playbills and ephemera such as menus and invitations.
Sir William’s collection was transferred from his Killara home to the Library’s Macquarie Street precinct progressively between 1951 and 1959. It comprised some 21,000 books, 42 linear metres of manuscripts, some 300 framed paintings, 205 albums of pictures, 1500 prints, drawings and watercolours, 250 museum objects, 8000 coins, tokens and medals (one of the finest collections in Australia) and nearly 10,000 postage stamps.
The quality of Dixson's Library – both in terms of its content and physical condition – is remarkable. For Dixson, the history of the book, as told through annotations or associations with interesting people as well as its decorative elements including the state of the binding, the cleanness of the copy and the presence of additional illustrations, was highly important.
The Dixson Library collection contains fine examples of medieval illuminated manuscripts and early printed books including some volumes with rare fore-edge paintings, many superb maps, charts and atlases of the great Dutch cartographers as well as 16th and 17th century books concerned with geography and navigation, other publishing rarities including a fine 1827 set of the first London edition of Charles Dicken’s The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in original parts and curios such as miniature books.
The Dixson Galleries collection contains the extensive colonial pictures and photographs presented by Sir William Dixson.
Dixson understood the importance of building on Mitchell’s legacy and collecting achievements. When he learned that the Mitchell Library’s endowment did not allow the acquisition of pictures he decided to focus on collecting colonial art and photography. In 1919, he stated his intention of donating part of his picture collection to the Public Library of NSW on the understanding that the government extend the Mitchell Library building to provide a space where the pictures could be hung.
The Dixson Galleries were opened on 21 October 1929, displaying 300 pictures including Dixson’s first donation of 195 paintings, and by 1943 he had added a further 150 paintings. Dixson was most proud of his portraits of key figures in Australian history such as Sir Joseph Banks and Governor Arthur Phillip, and his collection of landscape views tracing the development of Sydney and the spread of settlement. His enthusiasm for rare prints and photography ensured that his collection covers virtually every aspect of Australian art.
No one with any interest in the early history of the Australian people, the changing manners and customs, the marvellous development of material wealth, the rapid growth of the cities and the personality and appearance of some of the most noteworthy characters throughout the century and a half of its history can fail to be intensely interested in the pictures on the wall of the William Dixson Galleries...’ Sir Dudley de Chair, Opening of the Dixson Galleries, 1929.