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Something happened in Christchurch between 1933-53. Here, in this southern city, far removed from the creative artistic spark which had spread across Europe and the Americas, there was a blossoming. Christchurch is my city, so the arrival of Bloomsbury South was like opening a door to a world I suspected had existed, but had never properly explored.
Peter Simpson knows this world, as he lived in Christchurch for 25 years. He was a student, then a teacher at Canterbury University so knew and worked with many of those in this artistic community. His familiarity with running a publishing and printing company, Holloway Press, also enabled him to have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of this group.
The something that happened was the coming together of a group of creative artists: writers, painters, dramatists, sculptors, publishers, musicians, actors and dramatists. Together they supported, discussed and experimented in the wider arts. The title alludes to the Bloomsbury set who rose to fame in London. While some might say it is a bit pretentious to make this connection, Peter Simpson gives strong evidence to support the title.
His research is meticulous, and follows the individual stories of these creative leaders. Ursula Bethell was a founding member, and her support and encouragement is shown as an important factor in the establishment of the group. She supported rising poets, while Leo Bensemann provided a house for a studio, but also the venue for discussions and parties in which big ideas were freely debated. The founding of the Caxton Press played an important role in the printing and distribution of many new works. Each development is explained and its importance highlighted in this very readable book.
Having lived in Christchurch all my life, I have grown up with these names. I suppose I have struggled with the vacuum left as they departed for more supportive roles in other cities. Peter Simpson details this gradual decline and the desperate attempts by the remaining members to struggle on. The furore over the gift of Francis Hodgkins’s painting, Pleasure Garden, epitomises the conservative backlash in Christchurch. The establishment resented and excluded the members of the group, and so they left, taking their vision and passion to other shores.
This book is one of those benchmark writings, which every follower of the development of a distinctly New Zealand voice, must read. Peter Simpson has timed the release of his book well, coming 5 years after the earthquakes, which literally shook up the arts scene in Christchurch. I trust this publication will signal a new era in Christchurch creativity. It is time to move forward with the knowledge of past mistakes to enable us to build a community which allows and supports all forms of expressive art. This book is a wonderful gift to anyone who wonders, “What happened?”
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
Bloomsbury South: The arts in Christchurch 1933-53
by Peter Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press