Christchurch circles and cliques, Helen Watson White

Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953
Peter Simpson
Auckland University Press, $70.00,
ISBN 9781869408480

When Christchurch poet and printer Denis Glover travelled to Britain in 1941 to serve in the Royal Navy, he left behind one literary circle and – temporarily – joined another. An early letter home to fellow-poet Allen Curnow described literary soirées in London with John Lehmann:

there in solemn conclave, all on view, sat [Cecil] Day Lewis & Stephen Spender with his wife Natasha. I think they felt they were rather being shown off, & the conversation flowed along rather gossipy lines, with celebrities tossed here & there in airy unconcern. However, all was soon well; I made it clear that I was a barbarian come to see the ruins of Rome, & not very impressed either. Day Lewis is a studious & flat-chested little fellow (sporting a Holcroft bow which emphasises it) … The long-legged Spender … reminds me of a young pukeko … .

The focus of this tale is neither Lehmann’s “conclave”, nor any member of it, but Glover as outsider, coming from one circle half the world away to another where he feels … what does he feel? At home or not at home? In Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953, Peter Simpson explores, in depth and detail, the story of Glover’s artistic home, the Christchurch circle in which he played a central role, not only as a leading poet, but as publisher at the Caxton Press.

What Simpson calls Bloomsbury South was, of course, quite different from the original Bloomsbury, which was forming before WWI, in a London different again from the one in which Lehmann is described holding court. There are likenesses, however, between these circles: each is a well-defined world, hospitable but in-turned, an embattled literary castle without walls. Once a member, you may talk about your opponents from within – indeed that is almost compulsory – but you are equally likely to be talked-about from without.

The oppositional stance of London’s Bloomsbury was characteristic also of the Christchurch group, which at times locked horns with the conservative Canterbury Society of Arts. It’s interesting to compare, as Simpson does in his introduction, these two 20th-century art movements rejecting establishment values and aesthetics. In later chapters, however, it is also recognised that many in the Christchurch artistic circle continued to honour their mentors and models in the previous generation. Simpson’s argument, like the phenomenon he’s describing, is complicated by personal differences, and often admits exceptions that are interesting in themselves.

The network of artists and intellectuals in the original Bloomsbury Group (1910-30) both sought and made change. Its modernist innovators included Virginia Woolf, her painter sister Vanessa Bell, art-critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell, editor Leonard Woolf, and other novelists, painters, and writers of history, biography, philosophy and economics. Experimentation also drove the second Bloomsbury Group, making what Lehmann called “creative literature of more than local significance” in and beyond Christchurch. As Simpson writes:

The period from 1933 to 1953 in New Zealand was one of exceptional achievement, an efflorescence, not just in literature (poetry, fiction, essays, criticism) but also in publishing, printing and typography (both books and periodicals), the visual arts (especially painting and graphic art), theatre (especially Shakespeare) and classical music (composition and performance).

One major difference – besides geography – was that in this small group, based in colonial-minded Christchurch, there was an ongoing debate about nationalism: what an independent New Zealand identity might look like in literature and art.

To give full representation to the individuals involved (all, as in the historic Bloomsbury, “idiosyncratic, inimitable”), the book is divided into three major sections, each with three comprehensive chapters, where the leadership of different key players is highlighted in their particular spheres. To give full acknowledgement to the culture that evolved from interconnection, Simpson moves back and forth across the chapter boundaries, making links with other people, places and times.

The period 1933-38 begins with a pen-portrait of poet Ursula Bethell who, gathering young aspirants around her, earned the title “Mother of All”. The 1930s also brought the magazine Tomorrow, with its radical perspective, at the same time as the Caxton Press was consolidated in Christchurch, publishing poets (and friends) Curnow, Glover, A R D Fairburn and R A K Mason – wherever they lived in the country. The section dealing with the war years, while continuing the Caxton story, brings to the fore composer Douglas Lilburn, novelist and theatre director Ngaio Marsh, and the artists of the Group, in a context in which pacifism and conscientious objection were more normal than Glover’s chosen path of war service. The final three-chapter section, covering the postwar years (1946-53), focuses upon poet Charles Brasch as founder of Landfall, painter Colin McCahon and poet James K Baxter, with a rounding-off description of the group’s dispersal when some members chose to leave Christchurch and pursue careers elsewhere.

While the academic treatment of New Zealand literature and art has often tended to isolate the individual practitioner, this book, like others of Simpson’s, makes clear the uniquely supportive relationships formed among artists of a particular set. Friendships that are now enabled by networking and social media were even stronger in the pen-and-paper age. From the very first chapter, we watch a circle forming around Bethell: in Brasch’s words, “spirits drawn by her wind-flung word and offering / Homage, asking for strength”. Many of the poet’s connections with younger writers (Brasch and D’Arcy Cresswell initially in the United Kingdom, M H Holcroft in Invercargill, E H McCormick in Wellington) were sustained by letters; Simpson calls Bethell “an indefatigable correspondent”.

Writers didn’t only correspond – continuously – but wrote poems for each other and reviewed each other’s work, replied to criticism of their friends, sought and gave advice, sometimes suggesting changes of a fundamental kind. Artists of the Group went further: the trio of painters who flatted together, in conditions of friendship and intimacy, at 97 Cambridge Terrace (Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann and Lawrence Baigent) would co-curate exhibitions, draw or paint portraits of themselves and others, critique each other’s work and advocate for art in other disciplines. Angus ran a picture-lending service and sewed an artist’s smock for Bensemann who, with Baigent, played piano music composed by Lilburn, and designed striking catalogues for the Group’s annual shows. There were pacifist meetings, musical evenings and play-readings, as well as open parties at their so-called “house of art”.

Simpson has been able to illustrate every kind of artistic endeavour his text details. The book is crammed with examples of letters, working manuscripts, book covers, typography, and illustrations (many designed by Bensemann, Glover’s Caxton partner), plus landscapes, portraits and other works by Angus and Bensemann, Louise Henderson, Rata Lovell-Smith, Doris Lusk, Evelyn Page, Olivia Spencer Bower, Toss Woollaston, and the more independent McCahon. Paintings by their mentors and teachers at art schools in Christchurch, Dunedin and elsewhere are well represented, giving a sense of historical depth to the artists’ formation and the developing story. Marsh’s theatre work, beginning with student productions, is documented by stage and press photographs; Lilburn’s music – and his time at the Royal College of Music in London – by photographs of his teachers and contemporaries and a similar record of collaborative performance. And old Christchurch comes to life in the portraits (there’s no other word) of streetscapes familiar to those, including Simpson, who knew them in pre-earthquake days.

Lilburn described Christchurch in 1941, the place and the people combined, as “civilised”. From the 1930s onwards, many foundational figures, who were not artists themselves, had helped to make it so: the “dynamic” Professor James Shelley, for instance, who created both the Canterbury University College Drama Society and the Canterbury Repertory Theatre, and the equally influential Tomorrow contributor Professor H Winston Rhodes, to name just two.

In the same way, Simpson readily acknowledges his debt to the many other writers who have published on this era: among them Rachel Barrowman, in A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand, 1930-1950; the biographer of Angus, Jill Trevelyan; Lilburn’s biographer, Philip Norman; Peter Whiteford, who edited Bethell’s letters; Joanna Drayton who wrote on Marsh. His bibliography is long and illuminating, the endnotes and index rich in information. Reading this nearly encyclopedic book, and enjoying its elegant design, I haven’t been so excited in a long time. It’s a treasure trove.

Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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