On Tuesday we visited what is called on the website, “one of the most unusual places in Australia”, the Shakespeare Room at the State Library of New South Wales, that stands just across the road from the Shakespeare monument I wrote about last time. The Shakespeare Room was originally intended to celebrate the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916, but was only actually opened in 1942. It was designed to house the collection of David Scott Mitchell, after whom the whole Mitchell Wing of the Library is named. He collected books over a number of years in the early years of the twentieth century, with a number of people working to help him track down the volumes he wanted to acquire. Among these items was a complete set of all the Shakespeare Folios, the four collected editions published before 1700.
The Library still holds these, among the most treasured items in their collections. On permanent display in the room is a facsimile of the First Folio, and the original magnificently-carved wooden box which was created in order to ship the original volume to Australia, a wonderful reminder of how much Mitchell valued the book.
The image shows the central panel including the lover, the soldier and the Justice. This speech is one of the most popular subjects for stained glass: in Stratford-upon-Avon there is another example on the staircase up to what used to be the 1879 theatre.
The whole room is very reminiscent of the Shakespeare Room, newly rebuilt, that sits atop the Library of Birmingham. Both have elaborately-carved bookshelves, created to hold precious volumes of Shakespeare plays and books about him. We were told that the wood used is Tasmanian Blackwood, dyed in order to have the appearance of English Oak. Like the Birmingham Library, the actual volumes are nowadays safely stored in secure and air-conditioned stacks where they can only be consulted with special permission. The books in the room are all modern duplicates from the collections. For many years after it was created the Sydney room was used as a scholarly space for the study of special materials, but now it is open for visitors to see one day a week, and is also used for special events, again like the room in Birmingham.
We greatly enjoyed our visit to the Library including the Shakespeare Room and would like to thank our guide Thomas for telling us its story. It was heartening to see so much interest in this room from the many visitors who passed through while we were there, a tribute to the collecting passion of David Scott Mitchell who wanted to ensure there was a place for Shakespeare in Australia.