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Robertson, George (1860–1933)

by A. B. Paterson

from Sydney Mail

Some time in the early '80's there stood in Market-street, Sydney, a small bookseller's shop bearing the name of Angus and Robertson. Deriving its only light from its exceedingly narrow frontage, this shop gave somewhat the impression of one of those cubicles common in Eastern bazaars where a silk merchant, or a dealer in dried fish, sits cross-legged in wait for his customers.

The partners in this firm were two Scotsmen, of whom Angus was a bookseller and never aspired to be anything else; his partner, Robertson, was a tall, dour, black-a-vised Scot with aspirations. One reads that a thousand Scotsmen leave their native highlands every year with the fixed intention of editing the London 'Times' — J. M. Barrie was one of them — and Robertson came to this country with the determination to found a publishing business. He had served his time with the great Scottish firm of Maclehose, and in his eyes bookselling was a trade, but publishing was a profession.

In after years Robertson told me that he joined Angus because the latter had fifty pounds, which enabled them to start the shop and to stock it — mostly on credit. The whole work of the establishment, from buying early editions to sweeping out the shop, was done by the two partners, who worked together in the greatest amity; but Angus was a delicate man, and most of the work devolved on his partner.

Starting, one might say, from scratch, it was not long before Robertson displayed a knowledge of books which brought him the confidence of the big collectors, including Mr. (afterwards Sir) Adrian Knox and Mr. David Mitchell, who later on bequeathed his magnificent collection to the nation. Mr. Mitchell was a very wealthy man who lived the life of a recluse owing, it was said, to some disappointment in love in early life. He detested the business of having to hang round auction sales, and in later life he entrusted most of his buying to the youthful Scotsman, who knew his business and had the national nose for a bargain.

Few indeed were the people who were privileged to visit Mr. Mitchell's house and to inspect his collection, but Robertson obtained for me the entree to this literary holy of holies, where the courteous old gentleman lived in what one might call a fortress of books. The large number of books in the Mitchell Library represent only a select percentage of the total acquired by Mr. Mitchell during his years of collecting.

It was not long before Robertson's firm moved to bigger premises, and it was then that the urge to become a publisher asserted itself. I had written a lot of verse, and this verse had met with considerable acceptance in Australia; but the market for verse was then, as now, and always has been of a very limited character. The prospects of a book of verse written by an unknown Australian could only be described as problematical. It was not thought that the local market would absorb more than, say, a couple of thousand copies, while the attempt to break into the English market, with such a book savoured somewhat of trying to take Gibraltar with a rowing-boat.

But nothing daunted Robertson. I think to this day that the driving force behind him was his desire to send to his old firm of Maclehose a book published by himself. Be that as it may, he went to work on 'The Man from Snowy River,' circularised the book-selling trade (most of them his rivals), interviewed reviewers, and finally launched the book — and sent the first copy to Maclehose. This is not the place to speak of the success of the book; but as soon as it was well under way he started on a similar collection of the verse of Henry Lawson. Lawson was at that time writing for a Labour paper, and he was very dubious whether the capitalistic classes would have anything to do with his book; so he sold his rights in the book straight out for a lump sum and sat down and awaited the denouement. His book also sold remarkably well, and it was not long before Lawson repented of his bargain. He took no pains to conceal his dissatisfaction, and Robertson, who hoped to do further business with him, wiped out the old bargain and paid Lawson a royalty on sales. Lawson's book continued to sell well, and its author, who had a vein of bitter humour, once said to me, 'Do you know who's buying my book? Your friends of the capitalistic classes! The Labour people are not buying my book. They have declared me bogus for writing a story disclosing some good points in a squatter.' The various deals between Robertson and Lawson would fill a column in themselves; but history is full of such frictions between genius and publisher, and Robertson continued to bring out Lawson's books to the end. 

Of Robertson's later years it is unnecessary to speak. His one disappointment in life was that his Australian publications failed to make much impression on the English market, and he once gave voice to his disappointment by saying, 'They care neither for us nor for our works.' At one time Robertson was active in a movement to secure copyright for Australian works in America without the necessity of having the actual printing done in the land of the Stars and Stripes — a grand thing for Australian writers if it had succeeded; but our efforts at this end were about as effective as trying to kill a rhinoceros with a pea-shooter.

Such, then, is a brief history of what may be called an epoch in Australian publishing, and, if I may seem to have intruded a lot about the works of Lawson and myself, my excuse is that Lawson and I had the first reaping of the practically untouched field of Australian bush life. The mammoth who left his foot prints in a block of cooling lava may not have been any better than any other mammoth — he may not have been as good — but he had the advantage of making the first footprint. Possibly one might say the same thing about Robertson, who was almost the first man to step in on the virgin field of Australian publication. Another man might have done as well, but Robertson was the first man with the pluck and enterprise to hazard the adventure. The publishers of Gordon's work did little to push it, and they, in a measure, had greatness thrust upon them. If Robertson had lived in those days he might have made a worldwide success of the book, and, incidentally, he might have saved Gordon's life.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for George Robertson

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1933, p 14
  • will, Sun (Sydney), 18 December 1933, p 13

Citation details

A. B. Paterson, 'Robertson, George (1860–1933)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/robertson-george-8233/text35275, accessed 17 November 2018.

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