Queer Places:
Turnbull House, 25-27 Bowen St, Wellington, 6011
Bolton Street Cemetery, Bolton St, Wellington, 6011

A 1909 portrait by Robert Stewart Clouston. Image/ATL/1/2-002853Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (14 September 1868 – 28 June 1918)[1] was a New Zealand merchant, dandy[2] and book collector. On his death, his collection became the nucleus of the Alexander Turnbull Collection, initially housed in his residence, Turnbull House, but as of 1987 housed with the collections of the National Library of New Zealand, a body formed in 1965 by the amalgamation of three libraries, including the one bearing Turnbull's name. In 1913, shortly before his death, Turnbull had presented his Māori and Pacific artefacts to the Dominion Museum (now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa).[3]

Chris Brickell’s 2008 book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand points to Turnbull’s horror “when two fortune tellers prophesised his imminent betrothal, and noted his relief when ‘they added by consolation’ that he would ‘very shortly be a widower after that’”. Turnbull was close friends with Grafton “Bot” Bothamley, a future Clerk of Parliament (chief executive) and Bert Stirling, founder of the Paremata Boating Club in 1926.

Born in Wellington to Scottish merchant Walter Turnbull (1823–1897) and his wife Alexandrina Horsburgh (1827–1896), Turnbull grew up in Wellington but the family moved to London in 1881, where he attended Dulwich College. His brother Robert attended Wellington College, Berkshire. Two brothers Walter (born 1862) and William (born 1863) drowned in the River Tweed, Scotland on 1 September 1871.[4]

By the time he returned permanently to New Zealand in 1892, he was already collecting books. His particular interests were New Zealand, Pacific exploration, Scottish history, English literature, the art critic John Ruskin, and the poet John Milton. Turnbull had a standing order with the London bookseller Bernard Quaritch, which was regularly updated to include more subjects.

Turnbull also made a collection of New Zealand art, which he began by purchasing a group of watercolours of New Zealand flowers by Georgina Burne Hetley.[5]

Trappings of privilege: Alexander Turnbull, far right, relaxing in the billiard room at the family home with brother Robert, left, and lawyer EF Hadfield. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

He was buried alongside his parents, at Bolton Street Memorial Park, the oldest cemetery in Wellington but his remains and those of his family were later disinterred and moved into a common vault for the construction of the Wellington Urban Motorway. However, the headstone to the grave was shifted to a new location at the edge of the cemetery and it remains there as a memorial.[6]

After his death, Turnbull's collection contained approximately 55,000 books, as well as manuscripts, photographs, paintings and sketches (the artefacts having already been given to the Dominion Museum). The collection is no longer housed in his purpose-built house (which is now in the care of Department of Conservation and is known as Turnbull House), but in the same building as the other collections held by the National Library. Turnbull's Milton collection continues to be added to, by purchase and donation; a number of significant additions were made in the 1970s.[7]

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