The publication of Bloomsbury South is an important event for the arts community of Christchurch. It tied together the many artistic genres and people who were based in Christchurch from 1933-53.
Peter Millar led an interesting hour of questions and reflections with the author, Peter Simpson. Millar described the book as “a beautiful object in its own right”. This comment arose from the way that images, headings and original documents have been used to create a superb reading of this period in the artistic history of New Zealand. He described it as a book which gives equal weight to text and images.
Peter Simpson recalled the time 15 years ago when he first realised the connections between the creative blossoming in Bloomsbury, London post-WW1 and what happened in Christchurch. In the intervening years he has written about many of the artists as individuals, but it was a much grander idea to bring them together in this book. He talked us through the chapters and grouping these in pre-war, war, and post-war. Then the different genres became a focus within these chapters. “Once I settled on this plan, I stuck to it”.
Simpson talked to us about the importance of a physical space for these artists to meet. 97 Cambridge Terrace was owned by artist Sydney Lough Thompson, but he rented out studio rooms to the arts community. This provided an intellectual, political and artistic home for an ever widening group.
Institutions such as the Caxton Press and the University provided support for the group. The Depression also played a pivotal part in developing an awareness of the struggles many New Zealanders faced. While most of the artists came from middle class homes, it was as Special Constables, recruited from the university, that they met the desperate face of real people. Certainly, Denis Glover’s biographer felt that the experience had a profound effect on Glover. Paul Millar likened this to the creative response generated post-quake in Christchurch. As the depression was a catalyst for the Bloomsbury South group, so the Christchurch earthquakes have provided an urgency in artistic response.
Ursula Bethell’s role as a Mother Superior to the young male writers was a discovery which surprised Simpson. The general thought was that she ceased writing in 1934 and her influence stopped. His meticulous reading of the private correspondence of the artists, allowed him to trace connections and influences. Some, like Angus to Lilburn, wrote 2 or 3 times a week across the same city. He found this an invaluable resource and one which still offers unfound insights.
There was so much to celebrate in this event. Peter Simpson was the right man to write this book with an already extensive knowledge of these artists as individuals. But it was his vision to draw them together in these pages, and engage us in this story. He gave credit to his publisher, Auckland University Press, and in particular to Katrina Duncan, who superbly married text and image.
I had my copy of Bloomsbury South to be signed and when asked by my seat mate what I thought, I replied that I loved every page. I found him with a copy at the after match. ” I was tossing up, but your comments convinced me”. I know he will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press