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Bloomsbury South: When Christchurch was the creative capital of New Zealand

A new book examines a golden two decades when Christchurch was the country’s creative epicentre.

Denis Glover by Leo Bensemann (c1937); Rita Angus, self-portrait (1936-37); Charles Brasch by Evelyn Page (1937).
Denis Glover by Leo Bensemann (c1937); Rita Angus, self-portrait (1936-37); Charles Brasch by Evelyn Page (1937).

In October 1941, the printing schedule for Christchurch’s Caxton Press was full to bursting. There were new titles from Allen Curnow, ARD (Rex) Fairburn, Frank Sargeson and Basil Dowling, a new anthology of poetry and the launch of the new periodical Book.

As Caxton co-founder Denis Glover wrote in a letter to Charles Brasch, it is “a violent sort of boom”.

That “boom” was resounding around the artistic landscape. For two decades from the mid-1930s, Christchurch’s creative output was shaking the country out of its colonial torpor. In writing, painting, publishing, music and theatre, those who gravitated to Christchurch during those years came to define a cultural identity that was and is uniquely from and of New Zealand.

To the names above must be added Bruce Mason, Monte Holcroft, Ursula Bethell, Leo Bensemann, Douglas Lilburn, Evelyn and Frederick Page, Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, Doris Lusk, Olivia Spencer Bower, Ngaio Marsh, Colin McCahon and James K Baxter – a roll call now embedded in our intellectual and cultural history.

English editor John Lehmann would later ask why it was “that out of the hundreds of towns and universities in the English-speaking lands scattered over the seven seas, only one should at that time act as a focus of creative literature of more than local significance; that it should be in Christchurch, New Zealand, that a group of young writers had appeared who were eager to assimilate the pioneer developments in style and technique that were being made in England and America since the beginning of the century.”

By 1960, when Peter Simpson arrived in the city to study at university, that boom was barely an echo. Of the 25 living poets in the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, edited by Curnow and published that year, only two – Charles Spear and Paul Henderson (the pen name of Ruth France) – lived in Christchurch. Not one of the 12 writers in Landfall Country (1962) lived in the city.

“There was the feeling that something great had happened in Christchurch in the past and that it wasn’t happening now,” recalls Simpson. “I remember thinking, ‘Where the hell are all the poets?”

Why they left and why they came to Christchurch in the first place are not simple questions to answer, says Simpson, “and in a sense I wrote the book to try to understand these questions for myself”.

That book, Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953, provides a comprehensive portrait of the people who came together to change the course of our cultural history. The title alludes to the Bloomsbury Group, the close circle of artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell and Dora Carrington, who launched a modernist and elegantly bohemian challenge to the bourgeois values of England from 1910 until the 1940s.

Christchurch in the 1930s and 40s, argues Simpson, saw a similar “fortuitous coming-together of a number of exceptional talents linked by friendship, mutual stimulation, shared circumstances and opportunity, plus an element of the always inexplicable”.

Olivia Spencer Bower, self-portrait (1950); Leo Bensemann by Rita Angus (1938); Douglas Lilburn by Leo Bensemann (c1942).
Olivia Spencer Bower, self-portrait (1950); Leo Bensemann by Rita Angus (1938); Douglas Lilburn by Leo Bensemann (c1942).

Those circumstances are important. Both Dunedin and Christchurch had established arts institutions and universities early in their respective histories. Christchurch was a growing metropolis (in 1900, its population was the same as Auckland’s) and the economic difficulties and left-leaning intellectualism of the 30s drew those on the more radical fringes together.

“The Depression woke everybody up,” says Simpson. “Suddenly there was an atmosphere of crisis. Young people were trying to work out what was wrong with the country. With the presence of a few really strong and resourceful individuals – Glover, Bensemann, Curnow and Angus – things began to coalesce around them.

“Then, suddenly, the world was at war, and if you were in New Zealand as Marsh was, you were stuck here: you couldn’t get out.”

Simpson is familiar with his subjects. He has written books on John Caselberg, McCahon, Bensemann and Brasch. As managing editor of the now-closed Holloway Press, he published books of work by Bensemann, Curnow, McCahon, Charles Spear, Janet Frame and Robin Hyde.

In this book, however, he looks at the dynamics of a group of writers – artists, musicians and dramatists – united across various disciplines by friendship, collaboration and an often trenchant criticism.

Through their writings, art and letters, illustrated here through an excellent selection of portraits, artworks, book covers, theatre programmes and extracts of long handwritten missives, we see an artistic and intellectual rigour that came to define this period of our history.

The national reach of this activity emanated from a handful of institutions. Caxton Press, founded in 1935, brought together artists, typographers and writers from Christchurch and beyond. The Group, launched in 1927 as a small, progressive visual arts satellite to the staid orbit of the Christchurch Society of Arts (CSA), was “by far the most interesting thing happening in the visual arts anywhere in the country”, says Simpson, and it quickly attracted a stable of new artists: Evelyn Page, Louise Henderson, Angus, Spencer Bower, Lusk, Bensemann, Woollaston and McCahon.

Meanwhile, Landfall, launched by Brasch in 1947, was opening its pages to a generation of younger writers and artists: Baxter, Caselberg, Frame, Bill Pearson, Bruce Mason, AP Gaskell, Maurice Duggan, Keith Sinclair, Ruth Dallas and Kendrick Smithyman. Frame later wrote, “I sensed that if you didn’t appear in Landfall then you could scarcely call yourself a writer.”

As well as the institutions, there were key individuals: poet Ursula Bethell drew together a devoted group of younger artists, writers and intellectuals; Bensemann linked Group artists with the literary world of Caxton Press; Lilburn, the sole composer, collaborated with local poets and wrote scores for Ngaio Marsh’s Shakespeare productions; and Curnow, “pulling all this material together”, says Simpson, “showing that it had a kind of collective identity”.

As with Bloomsbury North, that identity was largely outside the mainstream. Most were pacifists – Angus, Lawrence Baigent and Bensemann were members of the local Peace Pledge Union. Many were gay or bisexual.

“Their sexual preferences put them on the outer. Homosexuality was illegal – they had to be very discreet. The only flagrant gay was D’Arcy Cresswell. Sargeson and Brasch were very cagey about their sexuality.”

And they were united in their rejection of the bourgeois values of existing institutions. “They wanted to reject everything that had happened in New Zealand arts up to that point. They wanted to be New Zealand but they wanted to be modern and up-to-date, so they were very alert to what was happening elsewhere in the world, particularly in England.”

In the book, Simpson quotes Page’s recollection of the Group’s founding: “It was necessary to have somewhere to get away out of the Victorian atmosphere.”

“I use the word ‘oppositional’,” he says now. “They were espousing a kind of modernism that wasn’t popular and there were powerful forces in society who tried to stop them. It was almost like drawing around the covered wagons to keep the hostile forces out.”

Some Group members and supporters in 1936. From left, Rata Lovell-Smith, Phyllis Bethune, Colin Bethune, Ngaio Marsh, Dr GM Lister, William Baverstock, Margaret Anderson (crouching), Hubert Henderson, Rosa Sawtell and Louise Henderson. Photo/Olivia Spencer Bower
Some Group members and supporters in 1936. From left, Rata Lovell-Smith, Phyllis Bethune, Colin Bethune, Ngaio Marsh, Dr GM Lister, William Baverstock, Margaret Anderson (crouching), Hubert Henderson, Rosa Sawtell and Louise Henderson. Photo/Olivia Spencer Bower

He cites the now-infamous Pleasure Garden affair – the decision in 1948 by the committee of the CSA, led by secretary William Baverstock, not to accept a selection of works by leading expatriate artist Frances Hodgkins. When a local fundraising initiative raised money to buy one of the works, Pleasure Garden (1932), as a gift to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, the advisory committee of the Christ­church City Council, including Baverstock, declined the offer.

As Simpson writes, “No episode better illustrates the cultural forces – reactionary versus progressive, insiders versus outsiders, philistines versus aesthetes – that prevailed in Christchurch in these decades, especially in the visual arts.”

But unlike those in the other Bloomsbury, the artists and writers of Christchurch were also grappling with the need for a distinctly New Zealand art form, growing from this place but in tune with the modernist enterprise unfolding in Europe and, to a lesser extent, America.

In 1946, Baxter spelt out the challenge: “We are waiting to be born yet will not leave the womb … [A] poet or an artist must choose here and now whether he is a transplanted Englishman or a New Zealander.”

It was a hard choice. Whatever may be written about a national literature for New Zealand, wrote Curnow a decade earlier, “England remains the technical research laboratory”.

Here’s the paradox, says Simpson: “On the one hand they were New Zealand first, on the other hand they were saying the only way of doing it right is to copy the best being done elsewhere.”

But the ties to the Old Country were fraying. Travel to England was costly and those returning described an alien land. Recalling his years at London’s Royal College of Music, Lilburn wrote, “It’s a different and disconcerting discovery to find, after living for a year or two in England, that you are also a foreigner there.”

New Zealand was seen as a lonely and isolated alternative. Sitting on the editorial board of independent radical journal Tomorrow, Frederick Sinclaire looked bleakly at his country: “We inhabit,” he wrote, “a land of dreary silence.”

This view was reiterated in Holcroft’s 1940 essay The Deepening Stream, in which he described the “comparatively shallow placing of Anglo-Saxon roots in the New Zealand soil”. We are, he wrote, “still strangers in the land”.

So these artists dug themselves in, using paintbrush, pen or musical composition to come to grips with a place defined as much by what it was not – a pastoral paradise joined at the hip to Mother England – as by what it was.

In explaining his poem sequence Not in Narrow Seas, in 1939, Curnow wrote, “The country did not know what to make of itself, colony or nation, privileged happyland or miserable banishment: the polarisation was nothing new … but we were the first to find poetry in it.”

In undertaking this challenge, says Simpson, Glover and Curnow were especially important. “Curnow called himself a militant poet – that is what they were militant about, that notion of creating a national literature or painting or whatever it might be.”

What eventuated was a synthesis of nationalism and international modernism; the voice, writes Simpson, “of enlightened provincialism – metropolitan standards, but commitment to local standards.”

A 1948 portrait by Ivy Fife of CSA secretary William Baverstock: “a militant reactionary”.
A 1948 portrait by Ivy Fife of CSA secretary William Baverstock: “a militant reactionary”.

Then they left. Between 1941 and 1954, the city saw a drastic exodus of talent to the North Island: Louise Henderson, Frederick and Evelyn Page, Allen and Betty Curnow, Lilburn, Baxter, Glover, Angus and McCahon. Basil Dowling went to Dunedin, Douglas MacDiarmid to Britain. The lights dimmed in what Curnow called the “poetic and intellectual powerhouse”. By 1953, Bloomsbury South was a thing of the past.

In his book, Simpson asks several “what if?” questions: what if McCahon had been offered a job at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery? What if Frederick Page had got the job he so badly wanted at the University of Canterbury?

But by the early 1950s, New Zealand was changing: American influence was growing; more New Zealanders were travelling overseas; the intimacy of the Christchurch scene – “one composer, three poets, two painter”, writes Simpson – was being swamped by the growing populations of Wellington and Auckland.

By then, too, the nationalism debate was losing its potency; the sense of radical isolation was rejected, described by some as a “South Island myth”.

Simpson: “A younger generation such as McCahon and Baxter was moving away from what the Curnow-Woollaston generation had achieved. It was partly out of an impatience with that nationalism – they felt they no longer needed to assert that, they conceived of themselves as more international in outlook. Even Curnow expanded his outlook, as Lilburn did when he moved into electronic music in the 60s. Within a few years, there emerges a different perception of New Zealand, and as the culture moved north, that became stronger.”

Simpson quotes McCahon arriving in Auckland in 1953 to a warmth “Chch never has. Not mock English or Scottish but becoming NZ & possibly what one would call Pacific.”

Under the directorship first of Eric Westbrook, then Peter Tomory, the Auckland City Art Gallery was breaking new ground. McCahon was given a job on the curatorial team and touring exhibitions of contemporary New Zealand paintings challenged the pre-eminence of the Group. The Government was also increasing its involvement in the arts. By the end of the 1940s, New Zealand had a national orchestra and a literary fund; in 1945, the Wellington-based Yearbook of the Arts was launched.

Caxton Press soldiered on, largely through the unflagging determination of Bensemann; the Group continued to exhibit until 1977; Landfall remains (since 1994 under the Otago University Press imprint); and Hodgkins’ Pleasure Garden finally entered the McDougall collection in 1951. But as the intense output and fierce criticality that defined those earlier years diminished, Christ­church sank into a period of what Simpson describes as “unenlightened provincialism”, typified by Baverstock, soon to become McDougall’s first paid director.

“If there is a villain in my book, it is Baverstock. He was such a militant reactionary. Just imagine how different Christchurch could have been if someone like Westbrook or Tomory had come to the McDougall.”

But the story of Bloomsbury South, written while Simpson held the 2012 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer’s Fellowship, had to end. “By their nature, these things are short-lived: everything comes together, there is an explosion of activity and interest, then it dissipates. Something catches fire then the fire goes out.”

The loud boom of Bloomsbury South has not been repeated. Art practice is more dispersed around the country and the world, and in daily media, arts coverage is shrinking, a sign, says Simpson, “of things closing down rather than opening up”. But the echo remains of a group of people who, in a brief period of intense creativity, “spoke to the condition of their country as it emerged into the modern era – art that was of New Zealand, by New Zealanders and for New Zealand”.

As Curnow said on meeting Lilburn fresh from the composer’s trip to England: “Don’t tell us about your overseas travel – it is all about New Zealand now.”

BLOOMSBURY SOUTH: THE ARTS IN CHRISTCHURCH 1933-1953, by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $69.99); LEO BENSEMANN AND FRIENDS: THE GROUP AND PORTRAITURE, curated by Peter Simpson (NZ Portrait Gallery, November 24-March 26)

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