Inspired by the style of doors that graced the entries of some of America’s most significant public buildings, the bronze portico doors at the entrance to the Mitchell Library in Sydney illustrate various elements of Australian history. Principal librarian William Ifould recognised that the doors were ‘somewhat of a luxury’ and approached benefactor Sir William Dixson to donate the doors in honour of the Library’s other great benefactor David Scott Mitchell.
The central doors honour European explorers of Australia; the left side shows the navigators who explored Australia’s coast and the right side, the explorers who travelled inland (the individual panels identify each explorer by name). The reliefs on the bordering doors were originally planned to depict the various arts and sciences represented in the Library’s collection, but the principal librarian William Ifould rejected the concept in favour of panels illustrating scenes from the lives of the Australian Aboriginal people.
Planning for the doors began in the early 1930s, however Ifould’s vision for ‘a beautiful pair of bronze entrance doors’ quickly became embroiled in controversy. Much debate focused on the subject matter, particularly the Aboriginal panels, which some thought should feature portraits of governors. True to form, among the critics of Ifould’s vision for the doors was the Daily Telegraph, which commented, ‘Mr Ifould is an excellent librarian, but is he capable of judging a piece of sculpture?’
The bas reliefs of aboriginal figures were undertaken by seven sculptors including Queensland sculptor Daphne Mayo, Ralph Walker, Frank Lynch and E. Lenegan and the images of the aboriginal figures were taken from photos in the library’s collection.
A traditional aboriginal smoking ceremony was held on October 19, 2019 outside the Mitchell Library as part of the Open Day ceremonies for the State Library NSW.