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Grace B. Sibley

American born Grace B. Sibley (1883-1969) has the distinction of having Bookplate designs created by two of the finest Australian Bookplate artists of their time: Harold Byrne (1899-1966) and David George Perrottet (1890-1971) and was able to commission these plates directly meeting these artists face-to-face. Grace, also known as Mrs. Lewis P. Sibley, arrived in Sydney on 28 December 1935 at the absolute height of the first Bookplate revival and no better city in which to reside as it is generally accepted that the Australian Bookplate movement was born there and thrived there until it faded and lost popularity after the death of the father of the movement John Lane Mullins (1857-1939) and the devastating distraction of World War II.

Civil Engineer, Lewis P. Sibley was making a name for himself in road making and during 1912 to 1916 made important contributions to journal articles published by the American Society of Civil Engineers 1 . In the early 1920s he was recruited by the Australian mining company, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) to head the By-Products operation in Sydney and Newcastle, New South Wales. He quickly established himself as an industry leader and provided advice to industry and State and Federal governments regarding modern advances in road making and other BHP product development. Sibley continued international travel and study tours to bring the latest technology and industry developments to Australia.

Sadly, his first wife, Lenore Sibley (1969-1934) died at home in their apartment in the T&G Building (Temperance and General Assurance Building) in Sydney on 3 November 1934. On 13 November 1934 Lewis P. Sibley sailed for America to return Lenore’s ashes to her home land.

On 28 December 1935, Grace B. Sibley arrived in Sydney as the new Mrs. Lewis P. Sibley. Her abounding energy expresses itself in great versatility, as she writes, sings, plays the violin and piano, having conducted an orchestra, and owned her own trio. At one time she was playing professionally throughout New England 2 . Grace quickly charmed her way into Sydney society, not only as a result of her husband’s industry profile but also because of her energy for active involvement in professional associations; mixing in American expatriate circles; and working with charity groups. Grace Sibley had an infectiously gregarious personality, she was rich by Australian standards, exotically American and her friendly embrace made her socially accessible.

Lewis Sibley had built an American style log cabin in the seaside hamlet of Avalon at Whale Beach Road toward Palm Beach, twentytwo miles north of Sydney where the Sibley’s were to spend most of their leisure time while living during the working week in the T & G Building apartment in Sydney, which until 1940 was the tallest building in the city and the tallest building in Australia. The log cabin was actually designed in 1929 by the eccentric architect Alexander Stewart Jolly (1887-1957) who was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Frank Lloyd Wright's Chicago school. Unsure whether the back woods log cabin was exotic or simply weird, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper ran a feature article on Grace Sibley and the log cabin on 2 April 1936.

From this point in time, Grace B. Sibley enjoyed a certain celebrity and a warm welcome into aspects of society in Sydney, although her affiliation with professional working women tended to exclude her from the inner sanctum of high society where vocation for a woman, except for home based entertaining and charitable work, was discouraged. The article describes the cabin construction: ‘Two of the logs which form the walls of the cabin are 46 feet long, and weigh one and a half tons. The guttering is of hollowed out cabbage tree palm, and the shingle roof is made of blue gum, hand-spliced into shingles thirty inches long, and laid nine inches to the weather, thus giving three thicknesses of shingle 3.’  In 2006, when the log cabin was owned by the petite, fashionable American , Regina Sutton, who had then been appointed State Librarian of New South Wales, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article about the history of the Avalon cabin and described it as ‘arguably the most bizarre home in Sydney 4.’

The 1936 article also describes Grace Sibley’s interest in motor touring and the shooting of colour movie film. But, more interestingly, the article also reports that: ‘Another of Mrs. Sibley's hobbies is the collecting of bookplates from all countries of the world. She has more than 300 in her collection now, and has found some excellent specimens from Australia. She says the Australian Bookplates appeal to her because of their originality of design and fine workmanship 5.’

Within her first six months in Australia she immersed herself in the Bookplate movement and commissioned her Bookplates by Harold Byrne and George Perrottet and by late 1936, less than twelve months in Australia, Grace Sibley was a member of organisations such as The Australian Ex Libris Society, the Fellowship of Australian Writers; and a member of the board of directors of the Y. W. C. A. of Sydney. On 3 November 1936, the Sydney Morning Herald ran another feature article titled: BOOK-PLATES AMERICAN WOMAN'S HOBBY. A Basis For Friendship by Barbara Goode Matthews. The article, while highlighting Bookplate collecting in Australia and Sibley’s participation is far more biographical and focuses on an American’s quirkish observations of Australian life. Grace Sibley clearly embraced Bookplate collecting as a means to establish a social network. ‘She considers that, like music, they speak all languages and are virtually small ambassadors of friendship and international understanding when exchanged with the Bookplates of collectors in other countries 6.’

By 1937, Grace B. Sibley had become a fixture on the social landscape of Sydney and remarkably, articles about her life and activities appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald at least every two weeks when resident in Sydney and not touring. These articles ranged from the social and often trite ‘stories’ through to the disturbing individual view of world affairs in the troubled times of the late 1930s seen through the eyes of a Bookplate collector.

On 30 March 1937, the newspaper reported a seemingly unremarkable social event at Mrs Sibley’s T & G Apartment where she hosted a farewell luncheon for the American Ambassador’s wife Mrs. Jay Pierrepont Moffat.

The Ambassador’s next assignment was to be as the United States of America’s Ambassador to Japan where the family remained until directly after the Japanese declaration of war against America on 7 December 1941.

Encouraged by her relationship with Mrs Jay Pierrepont Moffat, Grace Sibley departed for a tour of ‘The East’ on 1 May 1937. During this tour she visited China and Japan returning to Australia early July 1937 and once again, having interesting stories to tell newspaper journalists. When in Japan, Grace made a point of meeting with some of her international Bookplate friends and on 7 September 1937, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a feature article about her visit to the Kobe home of Mr. Shoji Kotsuka (circa 1890-1942), founder and president of the Japanese Ex Libris Society. Grace Sibley was quoted as saying: ‘We got on very well together. Mr. Kotsuka has a pleasing personality, and his face was wreathed in smiles when I showed him my Australian bookplates, as well as my Japanese one. He is up to date and believes that international friendships can be established in this way. We exchanged bookplates ... an exchange of plates with collectors in other countries was one way of establishing friendly relations of a permanent nature.’  Grace also reported that the ‘high-class hobby, the designing of ex-libris plates is becoming all the rage in Japan, and by this means international friendship is being deepened 7. ’

In the 1930s, art world politics mirrored real world politics and there was a growing divide between right and left. Communists were purposely promoting modernism in art to bring about cultural revolution in tandem with political change which met with serious opposition from traditionalist quarters.

In Australia, Sydney was the headquarters of the New Guard which boasted more than 50,000 members giving it a far greater membership base per capita than Moseley’s fascists in Britian. As early as 11 March 1933 Australian newspapers were reporting the Nazi murder of Jews in Germany and Japanese atrocities in China were reported as early as 1932 with the Sino-Japanese crisis being widely reported and in May 1932 the Y. W. C. A. in China issued an appeal for international action to stop Japanese  ‘bloodshed and atrocities barbarous beyond description 8’ . Unchecked, the Japanese atrocities peaked in December 1937 with the Rape of Nanking when a quarter of a million unarmed Chinese soldiers, men, women and children were slaughtered by the Japanese whose army was rapidly moving south.

These reports had little impact on the Australian Bookplate scene. Leading Bookplate collector, writer and publisher P. Neville Barnett (1881-1953) clearly expressed his personal political opinion when, in 1934, he wrote of Benito Mussolini as ‘the man of the Century’  and Adolf Hitler as ‘a bright shining star on the world political stage 9’.  Furthermore, and without due consideration of the Japanese aggression against China, South East Asia, America and Australia, Barnett was actively involved with Japanese art and the Japanese Bookplate movement at a very inauspicious moment in time. Insensitive to world affairs, Barnett continued publishing his beautiful books on Japanese art: Japanese colour-prints (1936); Souvenir of Japanese colour-prints (1936); Colour-prints of Hiroshige (1937); Hiroshige (1938); Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye (1940); Nishiki-ye, brocade prints of Japan (1941); and, Souvenir of Glimpses at Ukiyo-ye and Nishiki-ye: brocade prints of Japan (1942 & 1943).

From 1938 onwards, the Sibley’s became more acutely aware of looming conflict in both Europe and the Pacific. Lewis P. Sibley was giving advice to the Australian government on the greater range of goods and materials that could be produced by BHP By-Products operation in Sydney and Newcastle. Giving only one day’s notice, on 4 March 1938, Grace and Lewis Sibley suddenly embarked on a world cruise. On their return, for Grace it was ‘business as usual’ and the Sydney Morning Herald continued to report her activities including her initiating the establishment of the Sydney branch of the Business and Professional Women's Club affiliated with the International Federation of Business and Professional Women organised in Geneva in August 1930. By 6 October 1939, Grace was active in promoting fund raising for Chinese orphanages and charities. Early in 1940, the Sibley’s decided to return to the relative safety of America as the Japanese advanced quickly through China, threatening Burma and Singapore. On 7 June 1940 the Sibley’s sold their beloved log cabin in Avalon, gave up their apartment in the T & G Building and left Australia, never to return.

By March 1944, Grace Sibley was volunteering at Lewis P. Sibley’s old school in Lyons, New York where the school reported: Mrs. Lewis Sibley of Queen street, who was born and educated in the South, came to Lyons as the bride of Lewis Sibley. She is a dramatist and possesses unusual ability as a director and has a reputation of presenting her subject with "real life" enthusiasm 10.  After the war, Grace returned to her home town of Northampton , Hampshire, Massachusetts where she lived in her mother’s home. As predicted by Grace Sibley, Bookplate collecting and the international Bookplate fellowship can lead to lasting friendships and in July 1947, Mrs George Perrottet was a house guest of Grace Sibley’s in Northampton. Grace B. Sibley died on 1 October 1969.

George Perrottet was very much a self-taught artist and Bookplate design provided him with the perfect stage for his developing artwork. The weight of Perrottet’s contribution to Australian Bookplate design is found in the volume of his contribution. He created some one hundred and seventy personal Bookplates, of which some are truly beautiful but he made his own life difficult by relying on a medium less suited to miniaturised design. Early on in their Bookplate work, many Bookplate artists determined that linocut was cumbersome and moved quickly to the finer art of wood engraving. Perrottet designed his first Bookplate in 1929 and Grace Sibley’s commission came along in 1936. The American Eagle and the antipodean Southern Cross constellation is a fairly obvious choice of rebus design motif, for a newly arrived American in Australia, and it is typical of Perrottet but one suspects the choice was that of Grace B. Sibley. Certainly a score of Australian artists had previously explored the concept of American/ Australian friendship and collaboration during the high profile visits of the Great White Fleet in 1908 and the American Battle Fleet in 1927. Programs, menus, magazines, postcards all bore American/Australian designs of Kangaroos, eagles and every other form of flora and fauna that might typify the two nations holding hands. Sadly, Perrottet’s design is a little pedestrian. Similarly, the Harold Byrne design features the Avalon log cabin and to secure its Australianisation, a plump Koala (marsupial not bear), is overlaid to ensure everybody understands the rebus, the metaphor or the time and place.

Of her Byrne Bookplate Grace said: ‘We often see koala bears (sic) near the "cabin" - we think they're the cutest things and the gum-tree border, being typical of the country, especially appeals to me; so this Bookplate will be used to paste in my growing collection of books by Australian authors 11.’  Grace Sibley was happy, and as every Bookplate artist knows, that is equally as important as doing a good job.

The tragedy here, for Harold Byrne, is that although he absorbed himself in teaching art and not really practising it, by the mid 1930s he was producing stunning art deco Hollywood style designs in a Spanish/South American Orientalism style hinting on the film noir aesthetic of Bogart’s Casablanca or some exotic scenario that might feature a smouldering Ray Miland. Byrne actually made an original creative contribution to the developing aesthetic of Australian Bookplate design, and in that achievement he is greatly under-rated, but the restrictive Grace B. Sibley commission did not aid or encourage his development. This experience is not peculiarly Australian … less empathy with the subject commissioning a Bookplate often leads an artist to a more perfunctory design. Perhaps the last word, however, should go to the Sydney Morning Herald which reported: ‘…with her George Perrottet coloured lino-cut bookplate depicting an American eagle flying over the Southern Cross, and her etched Harold Byrne depiction of her log cabin at Avalon, complete with koala, together with the Japanese “nameplate”, she (Grace B. Sibley) has a trio of charming, individual bookplates unique among collectors. 12

 


  1. For example: Road Construction and Maintenance: An Informal Discussion: Cement-Concrete Pavements, by J. A. Johnston, L. P. Sibley et al, Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, December 1914, pp. 118-128.
  2. Book-Plates American Woman's Hobby. A Basis For Friendship. The Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales, Tuesday 3 November 1936 Supplement: Women's Supplement page 17 Article Illustrated.
  3. Modern Log Cabin Set In Australian Bushland. Week-End Home At Avalon. American Woman with Many Interests, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Thursday 2 April 1936, p 22, Article, Illustrated.
  4. A Folly Good Show, by Steve Meacham, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), September 28, 2006, Article, Illustrated, www.smh.com.au/news/home-lifestyle/a-folly-good-show/2006/09/26/11590365...
  5. Modern Log Cabin Set In Australian Bushland. Week-End Home At Avalon SMH
  6. Book-Plates American Woman's Hobby. A Basis For Friendship. The Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales, Tuesday 3 November 1936 Supplement: Women's Supplement p 17 Article Illustrated.
  7. International Links. Bookplate Collecting in Japan by Barbara Goode Matthews, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Tuesday 7 September 1937, p 16, Article, Illustrated.
  8. To the Conscience of the World - Chinese Women's Appeal, Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 - 1955) Wednesday 4 May 1932 p 18 Article.
  9. Woodcut Bookplates by P. Neville Barnett, foreword by Lionel Lindsay, Beacon Press, Sydney, 1934.
  10. Georgia Poets To Be Considered At Civic Club Meet, The Lyons Republican, March 9, 1944, of the The Lyons Republican, an 8-page newspaper published in Lyons, N.Y.(1929-1971).
  11. Book-Plates American Woman's Hobby. A Basis For Friendship. The Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales, Tuesday 3 November 1936 Supplement: Women's Supplement p. 17 Article Illustrated.
  12. International Links. Bookplate Collecting in Japan by Barbara Goode Matthews, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Tuesday 7 September 1937, p 16, Article, Illustrated.

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Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan