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Review: Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953

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Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 by Peter Simpson, published in 2016 by Auckland University Press as part of the Gerard & Marti Friedlander Creative Lives Series.

ISBN 978 1 86940 848 0

Moira Taylor

Nothing could replicate Bloomsbury exactly, says Peter Simpson, in this thorough and excellent tribute to the flowering of literature, music, theatre and the visual arts in Christchurch, New Zealand, from 1933 to 1953 but he does draw striking parallels between the two phenomena. Like the circle of writers, intellectuals and artists in Bloomsbury, London, the southern hemisphere circle came naturally together as creative people who supported each other, shared an intellectual and aesthetic outlook and, in some cases, were involved in joint ventures. Both circles included people who were homosexual or bisexual and therefore were acting outside the law, expecting little sympathy from a conservative public. Some during the years of the Second World War defied conscription and were pacifists or conscientious objectors and were detained or imprisoned.

Central to the literary developments in Christchurch was the Caxton Press, founded by poet Denis Glover, with its high quality typographical and design values, publishing many new poetic voices including Alan Curnow, Darcy Cresswell, R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn and Kendrick Smithyman. This echoed the efforts of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in Bloomsbury which was instrumental in publishing new modernist voices such as T.S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield. Painters exhibited together in The Group, begun in 1927 by graduates from the Canterbury School of Arts, drew to them artists from beyond Christchurch such as Toss Woollaston from Nelson, and Colin McCahon from Dunedin and Nelson, many of them drawing their influences from Britain and Europe. Doris Lusk, Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Douglas MacDiarmid and W.A. Sutton were all exhibited at this time, contributing to Christchurch’s reputation as the centre of the visual arts in New Zealand.

Landfall, the quarterly literary magazine established in 1947, edited by the poet and patron of the arts, Charles Brasch, published all writers of importance in New Zealand – Alan Curnow, Frank Sargeson, James K. Baxter, Janet Frame, Maurice Duggan, Ruth Dallas, Louis Johnson, Bill Pearson, among many others and was crucial in encouraging New Zealand writing over this fertile period. It included poetry, short stories and critical essays and had a new cover designed every year by either Glover or Leo Bensemann. Janet Frame in her early years sensed that if you didn’t appear in Landfall then you could scarcely call yourself a writer.

Ngaio Marsh, with her international reputation as a crime writer, enlivened Christchurch with her exciting productions of Shakespeare which drew on staff and students from the University. Douglas Lilburn, who was to become the leading composer for the country during this period, assisted in providing music for some of these productions.

Gradually artists, poets and teachers, moved away from Christchurch and other publications and forums sprang up in other centres after the Second World War. The heyday of Bloomsbury South was over but its output has been wonderfully recorded and displayed in all its power and beauty in this finely produced book which contains many rich rewards for its readers. It records a period of enormous significance in the literary and cultural history of New Zealand in a period characterised by Depression, war and its aftermath.

The author: Peter Simpson is a writer and scholar based in Auckland who lived in Christchurch for 25 years and has taught at the University of Canterbury. He is the author of six non-fiction books on New Zealand painters and poets and was a former Head of English at the University of Auckland.