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Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 by Peter Simpson - book review

An extraordinary 20th-century blooming of art and literature is celebrated in a new book.

Author Peter Simpson: negotiating the personal relationships without getting mired in gossip. Photo/Rebekah Robinson
Author Peter Simpson: negotiating the personal relationships without getting mired in gossip. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

Between the early 1930s and the early 1950s, Christchurch was the centre of innovative arts in New Zealand.

Partly this was the result of pure chance. If Auckland printer Bob Lowry had been more reliable and had seen books regularly through his press, Aucklanders such as RAK Mason, ARD Fairburn and Frank Sargeson would have had their work published in Auckland. Instead, it was poet-printer Denis Glover’s Caxton Press in Christchurch that first gave their poetry and prose to the reading public.

With its crafted first editions (as much Leo Bensemann’s work as Glover’s), Caxton Press ensured Christchurch’s literary and publishing pre-eminence for a number of years. Logically, it was to Caxton that Dunedin-based Charles Brasch turned when he needed a publisher for his new literary periodical Landfall in the late 1940s. It helped that Glover often collaborated with Christchurch-based Allen Curnow, who was working out his theory of New Zealand literary “nationalism”. By 1946, Caxton was publishing the first works of a teenage James K Baxter.

Read more: When Christchurch was the creative capital of New Zealand

But it wasn’t only chance that gave Christchurch the edge. Delicately skirting the issue of Anglican and Anglo-centric cultural snobbery in the Cathedral City, author Peter Simpson shows there was a cohesive community of younger painters and poets. As in London’s Bloomsbury, everybody knew everybody. Douglas Lilburn set Curnow to music. The older Mary Ursula Bethell was “godmother” to younger poetic talents. The younger painters, who called themselves “the Group”, broke with the conservative Canterbury Society of Arts, and on came the canvases of Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Toss Woollaston and (later) Molly McAllister and Colin McCahon. When she wasn’t writing her (usually English-set) detective novels, Ngaio Marsh was directing modernist productions of Shakespeare, with student casts, in a small Christchurch theatre.

It couldn’t last. After the war, Glover’s boozing hastened the decline of Caxton. “The Group” became more conservative, and talent (Curnow, Lilburn, Angus and others) drifted off to the North Island. By the mid-1950s, Auckland and Wellington had become the high culture centres of New Zealand.

LS3516_53_Simpson_Bloomsbury-SouthBloomsbury South is a wonderful book in both production and writing. Its large-page, double-column format allows for generous reproductions of photos, art works and Caxton title pages, all essential to Simpson’s story. His own originality is not in revealing new information about any creative person, but in showing how the networks functioned in old Christ­church. This is a work of synthesis as much as of original research.

It’s to Simpson’s great credit that he negotiates the personal relationships without getting mired in gossip. Yes, we hear of unorthodox sexual pairings in the arts community. But speculation on Marsh’s and Bethell’s sexuality is left as speculation. And when he tells a sad story (Rita Angus’ miscarried pregnancy to Lilburn, who hadn’t yet acknowledged his homosexuality), Simpson rightly keeps it brief. In the end, it is the blooming of art and literature in a particular time and place that matters. And that is what Bloomsbury South celebrates generously.

BLOOMSBURY SOUTH: THE ARTS IN CHRISTCHURCH 1933-1953, by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $69.99)

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