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Barrett Reid (1926–1995)

by Michael Dugan

Barrett Reid devoted his life to art and literature, generally working quietly with little interest in reward or personal fame. In spite of his approach he received a number of honors, including the Order of Australia and an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne.

By profession a librarian, he was long connected with the State Library of Victoria, serving as chief executive of its Public Libraries Division from 1967 until ill-health forced his retirement in 1982. As a cataloguer he carried out the Australian extension of the Dewey system of classification and compiled the catalogue for the La Trobe Library. He promoted the expansion of the free lending library system so successfully that by the time of his retirement only one Victorian shire lacked a municipal library.

Born in Brisbane, Barrett Reid co-founded the Queensland literary magazine Barjai in 1943 and became the youngest contributor to the influential literary and arts journal Angry Penguins.

He left Brisbane to pursue his career in Melbourne, where he became a founding editor of Ern Malley's Journal. From 1965 to 1988 he was poetry editor of the literary magazine Overland, which he then edited for five years following the death of its founding editor, Stephen Murray-Smith. He was also instrumental in reviving the magazine Australian Book Review.

He was represented in several important poetry anthologies and literary magazines. His collected poems are to be published by Angus and Robertson in September under the title Making Country.

Barrett Reid's close and enduring friendship with John and Sunday Reed brought him into contact with artists such as Sidney Nolan, Danila Vassilieff, John Perceval and Joy Hester.

His friendship with the Reeds' adopted son Sweeney led to contact with many younger artists and writers and he became a particularly close friend of the Melbourne poet Shelton Lea.

In 1953, in association with Charles and Barbara Blackman, he revived the Contemporary Art Society and in 1958 he edited the book Modern Australian Art. He was later guest curator of the John Perceval retrospective exhibition for the National Gallery of Victoria and wrote a major study of Perceval's work, published under the title Of Dark and Light. He was also closely involved in the development of the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, the Reeds' former home.

A co-founder of the National Book Council, Barrett Reid also served on the Literature Board of the Australia Council and as chairman of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and the Public Lending Right committee. He was the first senior librarian to promote the payment of public lending right to Australian authors for the use of their books in free lending libraries.

In a career that achieved much in aiding the progress of Australian cultural values and opinion, Barrett Reid made many close friends and, inevitably, a few enemies. His personal motto might be summed up as "Cut the crap and get on with the work.''

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Citation details

Michael Dugan, 'Reid, Barrett (1926–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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