Dromkeen’s magic casts a wider spell

Dromkeen director John Oldmeadow is overseeing the donation of the Children’s Literature Collection to the State Library of Victoria. Picture: Matthew FurneauxOnce upon a time … there lived a devoted pair of educational booksellers who created a legacy for the children of the nation. Sarah Harris reports.

WINDING beneath the trees, Dromkeen unfolds – a pop-up picture of enchantment. The lush setting, punctuated by peacocks, is so very perfect for the Children’s Literature Collection that it might have come from the pen of one of the many fine illustrators whose work is housed here.

For 40 years the National Trust-classified Riddells Creek homestead has been the repository for the vibrant imaginings of Australia’s best-loved children’s picture book artists.

Charting children’s literature from the colonial to the contemporary, the never-out-of print to the nascent, the Dromkeen Scholastic Collection consists of more than 7500 original artworks and illustrations including those by Pixie O’Harris, May Gibbs, Norman Lindsay, Graeme Base, Julie Vivas and Shaun Tan and is regarded as the most significant of its kind in the world.

Bronzed sculptures of such mythic creatures as The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and Mr Lizard and Gumnut Baby dot picture-book gardens full of dingley dells, fairy arbors and a heritage trail featuring picture-boards which tell the story of Australian children’s literature as it mirrored the growth pains of a nation.

Yet it all began, as these things often do, with just one slip of an illustration by Judy Cowell from Barnaby and the Rocket – commended as the 1973 Picture Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

It would inspire booksellers Joyce and Courtney Oldmeadow to turn their home into a gallery, teaching centre and sanctuary for children’s book authors and illustrators from around the world.

Oldmeadows Booksellers was then a thriving business and it was through Joyce and Court’s frequent contact with publishers that they began to appreciate the book-making process and the work that went into illustrated children’s books particularly.

“Prepublication material was held to be of little value and Joyce was concerned it was being lost,” the couple’s eldest son John – the current director of Dromkeen – recalls.

“There was one occasion when Leonard Bernstein had bought up a whole series of pictures from an Australian picture book. That was the sort of paradigmatic example of the material either being lost, of no account or going out of the country.

“Some of the stuff we had from the very early period came direct from the publishers because it was not seen as any intellectual property right for the illustrator.

“They did the work, they got a commission and after publication the work just sat there so the publisher would say, ‘Joyce you can have that’.”

Within a few short years the Dromkeen collection had gained an international reputation and in 1976 the Oldmeadows became the first overseas recipients of the UK’s Eleanor Fargeon Award for contributions to children’s literature.

“Dromkeen brought into the light the work of the illustrator,” Oldmeadow the younger says with pride.

“It has been a significant factor in raising the profile of illustrators and the value of their work. Now, illustrators probably make as much money from their speaking and sale of artwork as they do from royalties.”

Where fine artists like Donna Rawlins once sold work from the landmark My Place for as little as $100 each, now Jennie Baker of Window fame can command thousands.

The Dromkeen visitors’ book underscores its importance in the developing literary landscape and shows the significant numbers of publishers who sent their overseas authors and illustrators to the property for rest and recreation in the midst of long tours.

“That in turn developed some strong connections,” Oldmeadow observes. “William Mayne, a children author from the UK, stayed six months, William Golding stayed here. He and dad got on pretty well and he gave dad a full set of signed copies of all his works.

“Sir William and Lady Collins – as in Collins booksellers – they stayed here and just quietly slipped down to the local church.”

But among the most significant of all the relationships the Oldmeadows forged was with the then Ashton Scholastic which after Court’s death would purchase both Dromkeen and the book-selling business and become trustee of the collection.

For 35 years Scholastic maintained its remarkable commitment to Dromkeen.

“It has only been because of the backing of Scholastic that the collection has been able to grow and continue,” Oldmeadow acknowledges.

“I can’t think of another corporate company that has done this. BHP have just announced with great fanfare that they are putting $600,000 over three years into the Fremantle Children’s Book Centre. Scholastic put more than that in every year for over 30 years — more than that double that on some occasions.”

Now Scholastic itself is passing on the mantle, making a gift of the entire collection to the State Library of Victoria.

The final act of extraordinary corporate philanthropy was made possible by Dromkeen’s principal supporters, former CEO and current chairman of the Scholastic Australia board Ken Jolly and Dick Robinson, executive chairman of Scholastic Inc in New York, son of its founder and major stockholder.

It safeguards the collection for the nation after its two keenest champions aged 71 and 75 respectively no longer hold sway.

For John Oldmeadow – who took charge of his parents’ legacy after the death of his sister, the long-time Dromkeen director Kaye Keck — it is a bittersweet transfer.

“Is it significant for me personally yes, absolutely it is. But I think it is the right thing to do.”

He is confident the collection has found the perfect home in the State Library.

“We were very close to going with the National Library, but they couldn’t take the sculptures and one of the key things we wanted to ensure was that they would go as well.”

The library is pressing the planning minister to get permission to put the Gumnut Baby and the Bunyip on either side of its steps and the others will hopefully appear in the library itself.

“I can just see The Man From Ironbark leaning over and looking down onto that beautiful LaTrobe Reading Room.”

So, dear readers, it is not an end then, but the start to another chapter.

Dromkeen will remain open to the public until Sunday, October 7. Hours are 9am – 5pm Tuesday – Friday and Sunday noon – 4pm.