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

A new book tells the story of artists, musicians and writers who made Christchurch into a major arts centre.

Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933–1953
Peter Simpson
Auckland University Press (RRP $69.99) 

The Christchurch earthquakes have led to the city having to redefine itself socially, culturally and economically that will probably result in a fundamentally different city within a decade.

There will be individuals who will lead those changes just as 70 years ago another a group of artists, musicians and writers made Christchurch into a major centre of the arts.

In Bloomsbury South, Peter Simpson examines the extraordinary impact a group of two dozen people had on transforming not only the arts of Christchurch but New Zealand from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.

It was out of this period that some of the formative and seminal works of modern New Zealand art emerged such as Landfall in Unknown Seas, a setting of the poem by Alan Curnow to the music of Douglas Lilburn. In the visual arts, a similar important work was Rita Angus’ iconic Cass. 

The English editor and publisher John Lehman writing about Christchurch during in the mid-1950s asked, “Why was it then 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 and 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…and to give their country a new conscience and spiritual perspective?”

That they did make a major impact can be seen in the years after when those same people dispersed to other parts of New Zealand leaving something of a cultural vacuum.

For those two decades a cast of extraordinary men and women remade the arts. At that time Christchurch was home to Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Colin McCahon, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Lilburn along with institutions such as the art collective The Group, the Caxton Press, Landfall and Tomorrow as well as the Little Theatre.

It was a city in which painters lived with writers, writers promoted musicians, in which the arts and artists from different forms were deeply intertwined. And it was a city where artists developed a powerful synthesis of European modernist influences and an assertive New Zealand nationalism that gave mid-century country cultural life its particular shape.

The book takes its title from the Bloomsbury Group, which was a loose association of English writers, intellectuals, and artists who lived or worked in the Bloomsbury area of London They included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey; their works influenced literature, art and economics as well as impacting on ideas about feminism, pacifism and sexuality.

In this book, Mr Simpson tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of this "Bloomsbury South" and the arts and artists that made it.

He brings to life the individual talents and their passions, but also takes us inside the events and art works that they created together:

Among the central figures was the older poet Ursula Bethell, who acted as a guide, mentor and mother to many of the younger poets. Her impact rippled out and became something of a model for what would happen through the years.

One of the unlikely but significant establishments was the house at 97 Cambridge Tce, which was owned by the major artist Sydney Lough Thompson.

He divided his time between New Zealand and France. The house was also home to Angus, Bensemann, Lawrence Baigent and Archibald Nicol. It was also the unofficial headquarters of The Group and a popular meeting place for artist musicians and writers such as Colin McCahon, Douglas Lilburn and Allen Curnow

Many of the creative developments can be seen as coming about through individual friendships such as the connections between Glover and Bensemann, who worked enthusiastically and diligently at the Caxton Press. There was also the close friendship between McCahon and Baxter, the impact of Brasch’s patronage and Marsh’s Shakespearian recreations at the Little Theatre.

Mr Simpson recreates the intensity of the friendships and the collaborations between these individuals and groups who created a distinctively New Zealand art that spoke to the condition of their country as it emerged into the modern era.

He has strong connections with the arts of Christchurch, having lived there for 25 years. He both graduated from and subsequently taught at the University of Canterbury. He was also the Labour MP for Lyttelton from 1987-1990.

Mr Simpson is the author of six non-fiction books, many of which dealt with artists who were part of the Christchurch art scene: they include Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann and Patron and Painter: Charles Brasch and Colin McCahon. He has edited, or contributed to, many other titles, including books on Allen Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman, Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Peter Peryer.

A former head of English at the University of Auckland, Mr Simpson was also co-founder and part-time director of the Holloway Press, which drew on the small-press tradition of Lowry and Glover.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

Click the hamburger symbol top right of our homepage to access the Rich List 2016 and other sections.