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Book of the Week: Bloomsbury South by Peter Simpson

Peter Simpson writes exclusively for the Spinoff about his new, much talked-about book on the all-painting, all-chattering intelligentsia of Christchurch in the 1930s.

In 1938 the musician Fred Page returned to Christchurch from studying at the Royal College of Music in London. On his first day back he ran into his friend the poet Allen Curnow who said to him: “We don’t want to know what you have been doing, everything’s going on here now.”

The voice of a cocky, newly-minted nationalism, perhaps. And yet in the same year Allen and Betty Curnow named their first child Wystan, in honour of one of Allen’s idols, WH Auden, then at the height of his fame. There’s a paradox here: assertive nationalism on the one hand, provincial dependency on the other.

When poet and editor Charles Brasch on returning to New Zealand in 1946 after years living overseas first met Curnow he was struck by how English he looked (at that stage Curnow had never been out of New Zealand): “Curnow’s appearance was unexpected…very much the type of an English intellectual, robust in build, wearing glasses & a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe.”

And yet Curnow described himself in a letter to Denis Glover (fighting overseas with the Royal Navy) as a “poet militant”; he saw himself as a soldier in the “struggle for poetry in N.Z.” (as he called it in a review in Tomorrow of Fairburn’s Dominion), fighting to make poetry and the other arts more native and independent – “standing upright here”, as he famously put it.

This paradox is at the heart of my new book Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 (Auckland University Press), a central theme of which is the unlikely coupling of home-grown nationalism and imported modernism in all the arts in Christchurch (and New Zealand in general) in the decades straddling World War II.

This generation – Curnow, Glover, Brasch, Angus, Leo Bensemann, Douglas Lilburn, Ursula Bethell, Ngaio Marsh, Colin McCahon, James K. Baxter and the rest – wanted art that was true to the reality of their own experience as New Zealanders but to do so they had to borrow the forms and techniques of the modernists who were re-making art on the other side of the world, especially (for New Zealanders) in England.

The phrase “Bloomsbury South” first occurred to me about 15 years ago while curating an exhibition I called The Cambridge Terrace Years: Rita Angus and Leo Bensemann. For a year or two at the end of the 1930s these two artists and their friend Lawrence Baigent shared a flat at 97 Cambridge Terrace in central Christchurch close where the Bridge of Remembrance crosses the Avon River. Their flat became an epicentre for the flourishing arts scene in Christchurch before and during World War II. Angus and Bensemann shared a love of portrait painting, and who better to paint than each other and their flatmate Lawrence. They were all notably good-looking people in their mid to late 20s at the time, and Angus and Bensemann each drew or painted each other at least half a dozen times, and also did multiple self-portraits and portraits of Baigent.

This rash of portraiture was the focus of my Cambridge Terrace Years exhibition; they were outstandingly good portraits, the best being done anywhere in the country at that time. This trio of friends and lovers (you’ll have to read the book to discover which was which) hosted many others in the artistic community in Christchurch. Some were painters such as Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page and Louise Henderson, even the young Colin McCahon visited there; but there were also poets such as Glover, Curnow and Baxter, musicians such as Page and Lilburn, intellectuals like Winston Rhodes and Monte Holcroft. They dropped by to get painted, to read plays, to have parties, to perform music (both Baigent and Bensemann were gifted pianists), to hold political meetings especially about war and pacifism – all the inhabitants of Cambridge Terrace and many of their visitors opposed conscription into the armed forces.

(Glover was an exception; to the great surprise of everyone in their circle he joined the Royal Navy and headed overseas to take part in the D Day invasion among other heroics.)

Another reason Cambridge Terrace was such a vortex of creative energy at that time was Bensemann’s connection to the Caxton Press. He started working there as a printer and partner at the same time he moved to Cambridge Terrace. This brought the whole literary scene into play – Caxton published almost every good writer in the country writer from Auckland to Southland – as well as the visual arts circle he belonged to through Angus and The Group, an independent group of progressive artists alternative to the stuffy establishment of the Canterbury Society of Arts.

angus

ALLEN CURNOW, PENCIL DRAWING BY RITA ANGUS IN BOOK 5, 1942

I was struck by how like London’s Bloomsbury Group all this seemed, how similar to the forces of friendship, artistic experiment, radical politics, pacifism and variety of sexual preference such as animated Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, EM Forster, Maynard Keynes – the multi-talented writers, painters and intellectuals we know as the Bloomsbury Group.

When I came to write my book about the arts in Christchurch it struck me that the Bloomsbury analogy applied not just to the sceneat Cambridge Terrace but to the whole Christchurch art world. Ngaio Marsh’s Shakespeare productions for the University drama society attracted the best and brightest – Lilburn wrote the music, luminaries like John Pocock, Bob Gormack, Jack Henderson, Paul Molineux and Biddy Leninhan were the actors, Curnow wrote the best reviews. Another group gathered round the poet Ursula Bethell – a heap of talented youngsters, most of them male, most of them gay, including Toss Woollaston, Eric McCormick, Monte Holcroft, Brasch, Lilburn, Glover and Curnow.

The radical left Tomorrow Magazine, The Group and the Caxton Press were other centres of intersecting circles. In the heady mix of politics, art, sexuality, pacifism and general hostility to conventional attitudes and behaviour the whole scene bears a striking resemblance to Bloomsbury – or so I argue.

But there is a second dimension to the notion of “Bloomsbury South”. For all their desire to create an autochthonous art for New Zealand – an ugly yet precise word, meaning “original, native, indigenous”, much favoured by D’Arcy Cresswell (he used it of Bethell’s poetry) – the writers and artists who lived or were exhibited and published in Christchurch were heavily dependent on overseas models for their practice.

I’ve already mentioned Curnow’s debt to Auden (and other modernist poets such as Eliot and Dylan Thomas). But the same applied to Lilburn’s music which owed much to Sibelius and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and there are direct influences from England on the theatrical style of Ngaio Marsh, and the paintings of Woollaston and McCahon. As well, the typography at the Caxton Press was modelled closely on English typographers such as Eric Gill and Stanley Morison.

These New Zealanders wanted to be up-to-date. They knew the arts in Europe had undergone transformation since World War One; they wanted to achieve a similar break-through for the arts in New Zealand, not by avoiding all influences (an impossibility in any time or place) but by rejecting bad influences and adopting good ones: to model their work on the very best that was being produced in the capitals of Europe.

They knew that they lived on the edge of the world, far from the metropolitan centres of excellence, but they rejected the Mansfield/Hodgkins option of voluntary exile. They were determined to stay at home and do it here (“everything’s going on here now”); to tell the truth about their experience however bitter or negative it might be, by modelling themselves on the best modern practitioners overseas. They built the foundations – and built them well – on which later generations have constructed the many mansions of which art in this country now consists.


Bloomsbury South (Auckland University Press, $70) by Peter Simpson is available at Unity Books.

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