Uncover the mysteries of the black art

Love fine printing?

Of course you do! We’ve put together a new research guide to help you discover the stories of New Zealanders who’ve been fascinated by the exacting art of letterpress printing. From Robert Coupland Harding in the late 1800s, to contemporary printers like Rob Lamb who started Mirrorcity Letterpress in Oamaru just a few years ago, printing has been an important art and craft in New Zealand.

Fine printing has encompassed the handpress revivalists of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, who were inspired by Mediaeval and Renaissance aesthetics, progressive printers and typographers of the twentieth century and beyond, and contemporary creators of artists’ books. Letterpress printing is sometimes affectionately referred to as "the black art", due to the inevitability of ink on fingers.

A couple and a dog stand in the doorway to the premises of Robert Coupland Harding's printing business, on Hastings Street, Napier, in 1883. An advertisement for the 'Australasian Diary 1883' is visible in the window. There are flowers in window boxes on the second storey windows.Harding's printing premises, Hastings Street, Napier, 1883. Ref: PAColl-1761-04.

This research guide is for anyone who wants to see elegantly printed books, find out how classic New Zealand poets got their first start, read wild tales of pranks and parties, explore the intersections of art and language, discover the meticulous and messy process of hand printing, or learn how a community of patient enthusiasts are keeping an ancient craft alive.

We also point to some of our favourite sources outside of the Library, including manuscript archives, online research projects, international printers’ associations, and more, showing how to trace the international and historical movements which both inspired and received inspiration from New Zealand fine printers like those young men of the Caxton Press.

We’ve included some insider search tips, like how to gather together information about a printer with several different names and several different presses, and there are tips on copying, sharing and reusing what you find.

Shows a head and shoulders portrait, three-quarter view, of Christchurch poet Denis Glover. He is clean-shaven and wears a polo neck green sweater and tan sports jacket. The background is divided: a light blue left side, with a dark green drape on the right, behind the sitter.Portrait of poet Denis Glover by Leo Bensemann, ca 1937. Ref: G-059.

“Artist, printer, typographer, editor, publisher”

Printers can be a multi-talented bunch. A great example is Leo Bensemann, who was at the heart of several crucial artistic and social movements in the mid-twentieth century. With poet Denis Glover and others, he ran the Caxton Press in central Christchurch, publishing emerging New Zealand writers including Frank Sargeson, James K. Baxter, and Allan Curnow.

He was also a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and a progressive visual artist working in various media alongside Rita Angus and The Group. On retiring from the Caxton Press, Bensemann started Huntsbury Press in the Christchurch hill suburb of the same name. Caxton is still running, and remained in central Christchurch until earlier this year.

Poets Denis Glover and Hone Tuwhare, photographed in 1975, during a tour of 4 New Zealand poets, by an unidentified staff photographer for the Evening Post newspaper. Shows them seated in a room decorated with posters advertising live music shows. Hone Tuwhare has a tiki and a spotted handkerchief around his neck. He wears an open necked shirt, trousers and sandals. Denis Glover wears a suit and tie, with a straw boater.Poets Denis Glover and Hone Tuwhare, 1975. Ref: 1/4-022499-F.

The story of a press like Caxton is inseparable from those of other presses – founding member Denis Glover, for example, went on to run further presses in Wellington, often using other printers’ equipment. So to research the stories of Leo Bensemann and his colleagues, we started with some broad historical overviews, then searched several different databases.

Title page includes the inscription 'For Lawrence Baigent and Leo Bensemann, Christmas 1941'.Title page from Douglas Lilburn - A Musical offering, 1941. Ref: fMS-Papers-3983-1-01.

You never know what you’ll discover. Perhaps this music, dedicated to Bensemann by Douglas Lilburn, inspired him in his work? Or perhaps not - “And these preludes says Bensemann / There’s really no sense in ‘em.”

We also hold a wide range of resources about Leo Bensemann’s printing career itself, including works he printed, folders of his correspondence, oral history interview recordings from his contemporaries, reviews of his work, and a radio schedule for “Things as Seen by a Printer”, by Glover and Bensemann, on Christchurch’s 3YA in 1940.

Shows the Pegasus Press's wooden building at 14 Oxford Terrace Christchurch, partially surrounded by trees, with the Avon River in the foreground.B. Ross, Pegasus Press, ca 1950. Ref: A-426-085.

Selective guidance

For the sake of keeping the scope of this guide manageable, we’ve focused on those patient printers who get their fingers inky handling real old-fashioned movable type, and who are aspirational rather than primarily commercial in their approach.

But it is a tricky one – some commercial printers produce excellent and beautiful work, and some passionate private printers actually prefer to be thought of as keen craftspeople rather than fine printers. We hope we won’t offend any New Zealand printers by leaving them out (or by including them).

Take a look at the guide and if you have comments, drop us a line through the Ask a Librarian form.

Ian Frank George Milner, Denis James Matthews Glover and Robert William Lowry at the `Dog-box', St Elmos flats, Christchurch.Ian Frank George Milner, Denis James Matthews Glover and Robert William Lowry outside St Elmo flats, Christchurch, 1933. Ref: 1/2-075453-F.

The Library supports the development of our profession by partnering with Victoria University to arrange research opportunities and occasional internships for students. Melissa Bryant is a Master of Information Studies student at Victoria, and recently interned at the Library.

She created the Fine Printing guide with our Curator of Rare Books, Ruth Lightbourne. Melissa is a distant relative of Leo Bensemann, and was born and raised in Christchurch, giving her a cheerfully biased appreciation of the work of the Caxton Press. Ruth, on the other hand, simply admires their work because of her unerring good taste.

Ruth and Melissa with recent works by New Zealand-born printer Alan LoneyRuth and Melissa with recent works by New Zealand-born printer Alan Loney. Photo by Mark Beatty.

Examples of New Zealand fine printing, along with other beautiful books selected by Ruth, will be included in an exhibition next year: The Book Beautiful, 2 March – 20 May 2015.

By Melissa Bryant

Melissa is a Master of Information Studies student at Victoria University. She’s quite fond of letterpress printing.

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Lynley Makirere December 16th at 1:54PM

Thanks for this interesting article. I can't wait to see the exhibition in March 2015.

Cathy Harrington December 17th at 8:06PM

I very much enjoyed your well written and illustrated article, thank you Melissa.

Inge Doesburg December 24th at 12:14PM

Wonderful work, Melissa! A much appreciated resource. Well done.