In 1973, Albert Ullin owned Melbourne’s first children’s bookstore, The Little Bookroom, now with locations in Carlton North and the CBD, but that first store was on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets. One morning he noticed a grown man sitting on the floor of his bookstore perusing the picture books. It was illustrator Ron Brooks, who was working on his own debut children’s book, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, published in 1989.
"It started off as serendipity,” says Ullin. “I liked his work. My wife worked for a gallery, so she arranged an exhibition for him. We ended up buying three of them ourselves.” What started as a way to support the “starving artists” who would frequent his bookstore became a lifelong passion.
It’s now 2015. The Little Bookroom is still going strong, though Ullin has long since retired. But that doesn’t mean his art collection has to retire with him. That’s why Ullin has donated the whole thing to the NGV.
What started as a hobby soon became a serious collection, and now the public can see decades of instantly recognisable illustrations. From the evocative cross-hatching of Ron Brooks’ John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat (with a starring role from Ullin’s own cat) to Alison Lester’s simple, nostalgic watercolours on Thingitis and Graeme Base’s almost baroque illustrations for The Eleventh Hour, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that what impressed us as kids is still rich inspiration today. Ullin has built a lasting and representative collection, and he took a special interest in Indigenous artists and refugee stories.
“I decided some years ago that I didn’t want the collection to be broken up,” says Ullin. “Also, I wanted it to be in a public space, rather than behind closed doors.”
“Maurice Sendak’s collection is housed in a university. I didn’t want that. I wanted people to be able to come and look at them.”
Luckily, says Ullin, NGV director Tony Ellwood is passionate about introducing art to kids, and was keen to host the collection. For many of us picture books were our first exposure to art, and Ullin wants to increase the links to the art world.
“Children’s illustration is often not considered an art form,” says Ullin, “but I believe it is. Many of these illustrators have been influenced by renaissance artists and beyond. But you know, photography wasn’t considered an art form until the early ’60s.”
So maybe this will be a breakthrough?
“I hope so,” says Ullin. “That’s the idea.”
Bunyips and Dragons is now showing at the NGV Studio, Federation Square, until October 4.