Fine printing

About this guide

The Alexander Turnbull Library has the most comprehensive collection of examples of fine printing in New Zealand, together with significant collections of archival material relating to New Zealand fine printing.

Use this guide to find research advice and ideas for finding and using our resources, as well as resources held elsewhere. If you have any questions or suggestions, drop us a line through the Ask a Librarian form or ask the helpful research services staff when you’re visiting.

What is fine printing

Fine printing has encompassed the handpress revivalists of the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, who were inspired by Mediaeval and Renaissance aesthetics, progressive printers and typographers of the twentieth century and beyond, as well as contemporary creators of artists’ books.

Cover of Tara McLeod's Have Mercy, showing screenprinted words, images, and lettering.
Tara McLeod, Have Mercy (Pear Tree Press, 2011). Record page

In this guide we have focused on New Zealand presses which:

  • are privately owned, small, and aspirational rather than primarily commercial
  • use their own letterpress equipment and hand-set type
  • declare they aim to produce fine work, with an attention to aesthetics, design, and craftsmanship
  • aim to express the spirit of text and illustrations using the best methods and materials possible.

These criteria are based on:

  • Roderick Cave, ‘The Description of Private Press Books’, in Fine Printing and Private Presses (London, 2001)
  • Ruth Graniss, cited in P.R. Koch, ‘What is fine printing anyway? Part I’, in Quarterly News-Letter 79(2), (2014)
  • The Artists’ Books Thesaurus definition of Fine Press Books

The boundaries of fine printing are subjective, so this guide isn’t a comprehensive survey of all New Zealand fine printing. Some passionate private printers actually prefer to be thought of as keen craftspeople rather than fine printers, while some commercial printers produce excellent and beautiful work. For example, the Caxton and Pegasus Presses have produced skilfully hand-printed books, as well as others that were economically produced by machine.

Cover of Gregory O'Brien's View from the House of Many Chimneys, with a ragged-edged abstract design.
Gregory O’Brien, View from the house of many chimneys, (Fernbank Studio, 2000). Record page

Existing research

The best place to start your research is

Roderick Cave, ‘Fine printing down under’, in The Private Press (2nd Ed.) (New York, NY: R R Bowker, 1983), pp. 284-291.

  • This chapter provides an historical overview of hand printing in New Zealand from the Anglican clergyman William Yate in 1830 up to Alan Loney’s work in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Record page | Find it in New Zealand libraries

When you want to start looking further, check out these resources:

Per Henningsgaard, Kristen Colgin & Clyde Veleker, ‘A pedagogical tool for studying the history of the book: Thirty-five years of bibliographical presses in Australia and New Zealand, 1977-2012’ Script & Print, 38(1) (2014): 5-25.

  • This article discusses the definition of the bibliographical press and looks at earlier surveys of these presses in Australia and New Zealand. It looks in more detail at 15 presses, including New Zealand presses at the University of Auckland, University of Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Canterbury, and Massey University.

Lawlor, Books and bookmen (Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1954)

Alan Loney, ‘Printing with the handpress “pleases eye and mind and hand”’ Turnbull Library Record 12(2) (1979): 95-104.

  • Provides a detailed definition of fine printing, the need to preserve the materials required for hand printing, and what to print.
  • Record page

Alan Loney, ‘Contemporary fine printing in New Zealand’ Bookways, no.11 (April 1994): 25-29.

  • Loney looks specifically at John Denny (Puriri Press), Sydney Shep and Timothy Hurd (Silent Isle Press), and two university presses (Wellington and Auckland). Loney also includes a section on Michael O’Brien a designer bookbinder. The article begins with a short selective introduction on fine printing in New Zealand.
  • Record page

Tara McLeod, ‘The private press in New Zealand in the twenty-first century’ Script & Print, 30(3) (2006): 134-137.

Anthony Murray-Oliver, ‘The private presses of New Zealand’ (1957).

  • This unpublished manuscript compiled for the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1957 provides a brief survey of presses regarded at the time as producing fine printing. Included are Caxton, Pegasus, Nags Head, Wingfield, Mermaid, Unicorn, Pelorus, Pilgrim, Griffin, Handcraft, Colenso, and Periwinkle presses.
  • Record page

New Zealand Book Council, A library exhibition of small presses in New Zealand (Wellington: New Zealand Book Council, 1977).

  • Booklet produced to accompany a travelling exhibition. It gives a short overview of printing in New Zealand from the early missionary presses of Yate and Colenso, through the Maori presses used mainly for printing newspapers in Maori, to fine arts printing beginning with Harry H. Tombs in 1928.
  • Record page | Find it in New Zealand libraries

Noel Waite, ‘Private printing’ in Penny Griffith, Ross Harvey & Keith Maslen, (eds.), Book & print in New Zealand: a guide to print culture in Aotearoa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997), pp. 82-85.

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.
Leo Bensemann, portrait of Denis Glover, founder of the Caxton Press, ca. 1937. Ref: G-059.

Getting started

Before coming in to use the Reading Rooms, you’ll find it helpful to search the catalogues for items you want to use.

Unless you are searching for a specific item, it is best to start with a broad search. Try different combinations of words, without quote marks, to get the most results possible from across our collections.

This broad search may bring you some irrelevant items, but also some of those interesting and useful things you didn’t know you wanted! You can then narrow down the search using the filters on the left hand side.

Once you know more specifically what you are looking for, you can often find more items by searching the Catalogue for published works, and TAPUHI for unpublished items such as personal correspondence.

Access items in the Reading Rooms by registering and requesting the materials you want to see.

Any items from the Rare Books & Fine Printing collection must be ordered in person or by prior contact with the Curator, rather than online. Reading Room staff can help you with this.

Restrictions and permissions

We restrict access to some items for preservation reasons or due to donor agreements. Item records will tell you if you need the permission of the donor, the Chief Librarian, or someone else before you use it.

In these cases, talk to staff about how you may gain permission to view the item, and we’ll do what we can to help you. You may want to drop us a line through the Ask a Librarian form before you come in.

Making copies

You can photograph most items for your own use, using your personal digital camera, or you can order digital photographs from us.

Photocopies are possible under certain circumstances, depending upon the age and physical condition of the item. All photocopying requests are assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Curator, and are carried out by Rare Book staff.

More about making copies of collection items

Detail of Brendan O'Brien's Magnolia Tree, showing an abstract tree on very woody paper.
Detail of Brendan O’Brien, Magnolia Tree (Fernbank Studio, 2001). Ref: RPrNZ FERN OBRI 2001.

Published works

You can browse the New Zealand titles in the Library’s Rare Books & Fine Printing collection here, or by searching for RPrNZ under ‘Call Number’ in the Catalogue’s simple search. ‘RPrNZ’ is the call number we use for octavo-sized items in the Rare Books and Fine Printing – New Zealand collection.

Repeat the search with ‘qRPrNZ’ to find quartos, ‘fRPrNZ’ to find folios, ‘xfRPrNZ’ to find extra large items, and ‘qRPrNZ EPHEM’ to find ephemera such as membership cards, posters or individually printed poems. Our catalogue gives descriptions for some of these ephemera only as groups; not every individual item is described.

You should also search by other names or terms, such as the names of printers or presses. This is because:

  • some New Zealand printers, such as Alan Loney, have published overseas
  • the above strategy will only find New Zealand items within the Rare Books & Fine Printing Collection added before the end of 2013. After this date, we began using a different type of call number
  • some relevant works are stored in our other collections
Tara McLeod's Christchurch print, showing the name of the city against a red, cracked background.
Tara McLeod, Christchurch (Pear Tree Press, 2013). Record page for the City series

Using quotation marks allows you to search for a specific phrase. For example, searching with quotation marks around “Holloway Press” allows you to find items from or about the Holloway Press without being distracted by items about other things called Holloway or Press. (On the other hand, this search would not find items from the other presses which were actually run by Ron Holloway – it will only find items from the Holloway Press itself, which was named in his honour!)

Unpublished items

To browse unpublished items such as photographs, oral histories, correspondence or business archives for presses, search for terms such as "fine printing", "hand printing", "private presses", or "printers".

Subject headings help you find related items. An item will often have a number of headings attached to it – peoples’ names, businesses, locations, topics – making them a good way to move to related sets of items in the collections.

Published and unpublished collections sometimes use different subject headings. For example, Glover, Denis, 1912-1980 in the published collections is the same person as Glover, Denis James Matthews, 1912-1980 in the unpublished collections. Not every item has all the subject headings that could apply to it, so make sure you’re trying other search methods too.

Denis Glover, the founder of Caxton Press, at the Alexander Turnbull Library with a Book Week display showing a selection of books produced by Caxton Press.
Denis Glover, founder of Caxton Press, with a Book Week display in the Turnbull Library. Ref: EP/1963/3385/9A-F.

Example search: Bob Lowry and his presses

Carrying out a general search for Robert William Lowry returns a range of correspondence, printed works, photographs and other writers’ words about Bob Lowry.

Searching the Catalogue for “Bob Lowry”, Lowry, Bob, -1963, or the names of his presses (Unicorn Press, Pelorus Press and Pilgrim Press) finds more works printed by or in association with him.

Searching TAPUHI for “Bob Lowry”, Lowry, Robert William, 1912-1963, Unicorn Press (Auckland, N.Z.), Pelorus Press, or Pilgrim Press finds further unpublished items.

TAPUHI also lets you search our oral history collections, including I am the dark river, the Bob Lowry Oral History Project. In this section of TAPUHI, search for OHColl-0589.


N.B. Some oral histories are not yet listed on TAPUHI. Contact staff for more information about unlisted recordings. Some recordings need prior work before you can listen to them; please allow plenty of time for this – at least a few days between ordering the item and listening to it. This is for two reasons. You may need to get permission to listen to interviews – we can help you with this – and unless we already have one, we also need to make an access copy of the recording, to avoid damaging the original.

You can listen to oral histories at the National Library, or sometimes through interloan arranged with your local library. These recordings are not yet available for listening online.

Shows an abstract design of a violin bow and a grand piano, inside an oval.
Programme for Ruth Pearl, violin and Frederick Page, piano, at Saint Francis Hall, Harry H Tombs Limited, 1949. Ref: Eph-A-MUSIC-1949-01-cover.

Newspapers

Papers Past covers newspapers from around the country, from 1839 to the middle of the twentieth century. You can narrow your search to remove irrelevant results.

For example, limiting an exact phrase search for Harry H Tombs to 1915 onwards allows you to focus on his career as a printer, rather than earlier references like his university examination results.

Image showing Papaers Past search results
COMPANIES REGISTERED, Evening Post, 11 July 1913.

Sources outside the library

Archives and other primary sources

Archives New Zealand has government records such as birth, death, and military service, which can help when researching printers’ biographies. Their research guides are helpful.

Local body archives, such as the Wellington City Archives, contain useful documents like photographs, maps, and correspondence related to business premises. It’s often good to contact them before your visit to see how they can help.

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.
Harding's printing premises, Hastings Street, Napier, 1883. Ref: PAColl-1761-04.

Other libraries

Local libraries with rare books or heritage collections may hold the publications, archives and correspondence of local printers.

Search Auckland Libraries’ manuscripts collection for unpublished items, such as some of the letters of Ron and Kay Holloway. Their catalogue of published material includes works by Tara McLeod.

The University of Canterbury’s MacMillan Brown Library Archives Collection has art, correspondence, clippings and archives related to the Pegasus Press.

The Hocken’s archival collections at the University of Otago have archives from Cherrie & McIndoe.

The J. C. Beaglehole Room of the Victoria University Library holds many publications by the Pemmican Press.

Typesetting and illustration for Hone Tuwhare's Flood. Illustration shows an inky cloud and a small windowed shed.
Flood, poem by Hone Tuwhare, illustrated by artist Inge Doesburg, in _Twelve poems, by Hone Tuwhare ; interpreted by seven Dunedin printmakers, Dunedin. Ref: fRPrNZ OTAK TUWH 2007.

Association of Handcraft Printers NZ

This group of people is interested in the practice of letterpress printing and all that this entails.

A general search of the catalogue will bring up both published and unpublished items.

Or you can be more specific and search the published collections for their annual booklet of type specimens, Vinculum , or an article about their history to 1989 from the journal New Zealand Crafts.

Their membership lists are available in the unpublished collections, some under the term membership, and others under members.

They also have their own, still active site, and you may be able to get plenty more information from talking to them directly, or seeing if they have sent materials to other archives.

You can also look at other organisations, like the Association of Bookcrafts, to help you fill in the larger picture.

Presses and printers

Press Printer Where and when Selected sources
Robert Coupland Harding In Napier, then from 1890 in Wellington Works by and about Harding The Printers’ Web research project D McKenzie, "Harding, Robert Coupland 1849-1916: Printer, typographer, journalist" in The National Grid 44, 10-32.
Aspect Phil Parr Titahi Bay, from 1971, then Levin until 2005 Phil Parr, The Aspect Press: A private press founded August 1971
Black Light Alan Loney Te Aro, Wellington, 1987-1991
Caxton Denis Glover until 1952, with Leo Bensemann from 1937 Christchurch, from 1936 (also a Caxton Club from 1932) Brian Bell, The Caxton Press in Home & Building Noel Waite, Adventure and art: The Caxton Press Noel Waite, "'Aventur und Kunst' in New Zealand: the art of Leo Bensemann", Turnbull Library Record 34 Tess McClure, Caxton Press on the move to Wigram, The Press, 5 November 2014
Cock & Bull Ed Cutler Christchurch
Cherrie and McIndoe John McIndoe Dunedin. “From 1893 to 1900 he was in partnership as a printer with David Cherrie, trading as Cherrie and McIndoe from premises in Jetty Street... established in 1893, and its publishing arm flourished from 1968 through to the 1990s.” Blog post about the archives at the Hocken Library
Elibank Rachel Salmond and Ross Harvey Wellington, 1984-1987 The Albion platen/flatbed press used by Elibank
Fernbank Studio Brendan O’Brien Wellington
Forerunner R. Gardiner and W. McLean Havelock North, 1909-
Frayed Frisket John Holmes Dunedin "Words labour of love of amateur Caxton" in the Otago Daily Times
Griffin Ron and Kay Holloway Auckland, 1930s Obituaries of Ron Holloway at The Holloway Press and the New Zealand Herald K Holloway, Meet me at the press (memoirs II), Griffin, 1994
Harry H. Tombs (H. H. Tombs Ltd.), then Wingfield Harry H. Tombs Wellington, from 1915 Newspaper articles mentioning “Harry H. Tombs” in Papers Past
Hawk Alan Loney 1974-1983
Holloway – the press is named after Ron and Kay Holloway, who donated its initial equipment Alan Loney 1994 until his departure for Melbourne in 1998; Tara McLeod from 2001 Auckland University, 1994 until September 2014 William Dart, "Building on a tradition: Auckland's Holloway Press" Alan Loney, Letters to Ron Retrospective exhibition Dark Arts: 20 years of the Holloway Press, Gus Fisher Gallery, July 4 2014 – August 30 2014
Homeprint John and Allison Brebner Feilding
Huntsbury Leo Bensemann from c1975, around the time of his retirement from Caxton Huntsbury, Christchurch, around 1975
Kilmog Dunedin Printed works by Kilmog Press at the Hocken Collections
Kowhai Peter Vangioni St Albans, Christchurch
Mermaid Denis Glover Wellington, from 1957 (using Wingfield Press equipment and premises) Anthony Murray-Oliver, *The private presses of New Zealand
mirrorcity* Rob Lamb – also Gumtree in Purakanui, since 2007 Oamaru, since c2012
Mount St. John Mark Venables Auckland
Nag's Head Bob Gormack Christchurch, from the 1940s Noel Waite, The Byron of Burnside and the Nag's Head Press Roderick Cave, "Nag’s Head: a New Zealand private press" in Fine printing and private presses
Otakou (previously The Bibliography Room) Various printers in residence University of Otago, from 1961 Keith Maslen, "The Bibliography Room Press 1961-2005" in Script & Print 30, 3
Pear Tree – not to be confused with the older press of the same name in England Tara McLeod Auckland, from 1988 Tara McLeod, "Pear Tree Press" in Parenthesis
Pegasus Various, including the original compositor Wally Clough and machinist Allan Wear; Denis Glover after 1951; Bob Gormack after 1948 Christchurch, 1947-1987 Peter Low, Printing by the Avon: Unreliable reminiscences of the Pegasus Press, 1947-1987
Pemmican Chris Orsman, Harry Ricketts, Brendan O’Brien Wellington Anna Livesey, "Interview with Chris Orsman" in Turbine Chris Orsman at the New Zealand Book Council
Pettifogging John Denny, with Phil Parkinson as designer/publisher Auckland, c1978-c1984 Works by Pettifogging Press at Auckland Museum
Puriri John Denny Auckland, from 1988 (now digital as well as letterpress printing)
Silent Isle Sydney Shep, Timothy Hurd 1993 until present (though no recent publications)
Steiner Elizabeth Steiner Auckland, since c1990
Unicorn, Pelorus, and Pilgrim Bob Lowry, with R.A.K. Mason then Ron Holloway Auckland. Unicorn became part of Ron Holloway's Griffin Press. Unicorn from c1934, Pelorus 1945-1953, Pilgrim from c1954-1961. P Hughes, Bob Lowry and the Pelorus Press, 1945-53
Wai-te-ata Press – Wai-te-Ata Music Press is a separate establishment Prof Don McKenzie 1962-1986; Roderick Cave until 1993; Dr Sydney Shep 1995 until present Victoria University’s Kelburn campus
Page from Tara McLeod's Sans Serif, reading 'In the sweeping broom of technological change, some people remain lodged in the corners. They make tangible things that other people appreciate and put to good use. At the end of the day they can hold and see the results of their labours. For many people, as a small anonymous cog in a larger machine, job satisfaction is more abstract, and a days work on the computer can be ultimately and deeply...
Tara McLeod, Sans Serif, Pear Tree Press, 2012. Record page

Fine printing beyond New Zealand

Use these resources to help put New Zealand fine printing into an international perspective.

Alan Loney, Adventure & art: the fine press book from 1450 to 2011. An exhibition catalogue, 24 October - 12 November 2011, Electio Press, 2011. This puts the art of fine printing succinctly into an historical perspective, beginning with Gutenberg. It includes lists of recommended reading and online resources.

Fine Press Book Association, particularly their reference book and link lists. Their journal Parenthesis was preceded by Fine Print: The review for the arts of the book.

The Briar Press' site includes the International Register of Private Press Names.

LetterpressAlive.co.uk provides information about letterpress activity in the United Kingdom.

The Alcuin Society is a community of bibliophiles based in Canada.

Occidental University, California, has a useful Fine Printing and Printing History guide.

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.

Acknowledgements

Written by Melissa Bryant and Dr Ruth Lightbourne.

With assistance from:

  • Brendan O'Brien
  • Dr Sydney Shep
  • Reuben Schrader