Building on a Tradition
Auckland's Holloway Press

WILLIAM DART

Peter Simpson lives with and within words. As one of the country’s foremost and most active scholars in the field of our various artistic endeavours, his initiatives and publications have been extensive. His books range from his 1982 study of the writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson for Oxford University Press to Craig Potton’s 2001 publication of Answering Hark: McCahon/ Caselberg: Painter/Poet. Simpson has published a second book on McCahon just this year, Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years 1953-1959 (Auckland University Press, 2007).

Answering Hark, fully reviewed in this magazine by Francis Pound,1 highlights Simpson’s particular gift for crossing the line and searching for the interface between the arts. We are not talking of that cerebral and sometimes strained coalition that some latterday theorists force upon us, but an inner connection, particular in the work of the artists and writers who came to maturity in the middle of the last century.

Simpson is also a publisher and the force behind Auckland University’s Holloway Press which, since 1994, has been building up a substantial list of publications, many of which revolve around that special relationship between word and image.

The initial inspiration, Simpson will tell you, came when Alan Loney was writer-in-residence with the University of Auckland English Department.

‘Ron Holloway, who had run the Griffin Press, wanted to make a donation to the University,’ he explains. ‘Alan wanted a Press that would do fine printing, but he had run out of money with his earlier presses and was looking for a “mother” and hoped that the University would fulfil that role’.

Yet, as Simpson points out, the actual connection with Holloway is more symbolic than literal.

‘It refers back to the tradition of private press publishing in this country,’ he says. Holloway was a member of the generation of Bob Lowry, Denis Glover Leo Bensemann, and Bob Gormack (the Nag’s Head Press), ‘people who were trying to bring new standards of book design and production to this country.’

Simpson makes more connections. He speaks of Lowry’s role in the short-lived Phoenix magazine, produced on Auckland’s campus in the 1930s. Four issues appeared, the first two edited by James Bertram before he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, the remainder by R.A.K. Mason, ‘who turned the magazine hard left which meant it got into trouble with the university authorities and everything fell apart.’

Legendary names come into our conversation, like Eric Gill, the noted English engraver and bookmaker who was such an inspirational force in the 1930s and 40s. Simpson notes that Lowry, too, ‘brought a kind of genius to what he was doing, publishing the first books of Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Kendrick Smithyman and Maurice Duggan.2 Glover (later joined by Bensemann) emulated him in Christchurch and, out of these two centres, New Zealand literature got off the ground.’

Alan Loney came to Holloway with experience from his own Hawk Press and Black Light Press, but discontinued his association with Holloway in 1998 when he moved to Australia where he has since set up Election Editions. In 2001, having curated and written the exhibition/book Answering Hark about the collaborations between Colin McCahon and John Caselberg, Simpson revived the press, with himself as publisher and Tara McLeod as designer and printer.

‘Since I’ve been running it, Holloway publishes two kinds of book. One brings writers and artists together in some sort of collaborative partnership. The other grows out of my scholarship in New Zealand literature. In doing my own research I occasionally come across interesting unpublished material that I think is worthy of being made available.’

Michele Leggott’s Journey to Portugal (2007) comes into the first category, setting Leggott’s words against the visuals of Gretchen Albrecht.

‘Michele had a long poem that she offered to us. She had been invited to a poetry conference in Portugal and took with her a notebook to write a diary or day-book; Journey to Portugal is precisely that.

GRETCHEN ALBRECHT Illustration for Michele Leggott’s Journey to Portugal 2007
Chine-collé, 250 x 330 mm.

‘The point of connection with Gretchen Albrecht is that Michele’s writing is highly imagistic and very colourful and Gretchen is also a marvelous colorist. Fortuitously, as it turned out, Gretchen had been to Portugal a lot, had worked there, loved the place and was very responsive to Michele’s poem.

‘You put an artist and writer together and hope that some kind of spark will occur, that something will be created that is more than the sum of its parts.’

However, there were technical issues to be addressed.

‘Gretchen did a whole heap of collages—about 100—but the problem was turning them into something that could be printed in a book. Initially we were going to scan them, and make them into photo-polymer blocks which could be printed on our letterpress machine but, as we went on, Gretchen decided she wanted to involve collage in the actual book.

‘With the help of Elizabeth Steiner, a friend and book artist, Gretchen adopted the technique of chinecollé, cutting pieces of thin coloured rice paper and pasting them to the pages, using a nipping press to flatten the images. So most of the images are actual collages, and unique to each copy.’

Journey to Portugal was produced in a run of 100 copies selling for $500 a piece, although Simpson is not perturbed by the price.

‘$500 might seem expensive for a book, but in terms of an artwork, it’s relatively little. Any art school graduate producing lithographs will charge up to $1000 for a single print. And, in a sense, these books are more akin to an edition of a print run than a normal commercially printed book. I market them to the arts community as much as the literary. People who know about art are not so frightened by such prices. The books are, of course, expensive to produce; we use high quality paper and binding, and letterpress printing is very labour-intensive. The books are not over-priced, I think, considering the quality of materials and production, and the fact they are signed and numbered limited editions that will never be reprinted.’

Also new this year is a handsome and compact volume of The Collected Poems of Charles Spear, a poet of the ‘40s and ‘50s who interested Simpson ‘because at the height nationalism in New Zealand literature and art, he wrote these exquisitely polished little poems that contain absolutely no references at all to New Zealand.They fly in the face of prevailing nationalistic aesthetic ideas.’

Simpson saw Tony Lane as the ideal artist to be involved here because of striking parallels between the poet’s and painter’s methodologies.

TONY LANE Illustration for The Collected Poems of Charles Spear 2007
Mixed media, 124 x 83 mm.

‘Tony’s paintings seldom make reference to local imagery and they are steeped in art history— especially of the Mediterranean. They are somewhat hermetic—not always easy to interpret, which means you have to guess at their symbolism and the significance of their imagery. Finally, the paintings are always exquisitely made with a perfection of finish— all qualities that he shares with Spear.’

We look at what Simpson’s professes to be his favourite juxtaposition of image and words in the book. There is nothing in the resonant lines of Spear’s poem ‘The Watchers I’ to suggest they might have come from a New Zealander:
Beneath the rampart, when the bending palm
Draws languid fingers through the opening bars
Of wind-borne ocean music, with pale stars
On lips and eyes, sit in a holy calm

The watchers of the dooms…

Simpson looks at Lane’s complementing image, verso to Spears’ recto, ‘not so much an illustration but an analogous artistic expression’.

He finds what looks like a tree, or a catapult-like construction. Perhaps there are falling tears or rain around the central image, and boxes or an enclosing stone wall piled up within the tree. ‘While suggestive, it is not an image that lends itself to immediate comprehension,’ Simpson says. ‘Spear’s poetry has that same enigmatic but intruiguing quality.’

Interestingly, the finished Lane contribution is not quite what was first envisaged. ‘Originally, Tony’s drawings were brightly coloured but, on reflection, he decided he would tone them down a lot to suit the period feel of the poems. Spear’s poetry is full of colour, but it’s often quite recherché (eg. “Ovals of opal on dislustred seas”)’.

‘This turned out to be quite an interesting and successful marriage,’ Simpson muses.

The only publication for 2006 was a collaboration between Alan Loney and Max Gimblett titled Searchings, a fascinating selection from Gimblett’s private journals.

MAX GIMBLETT Ground Zero, original drawing from Searchings 2006
Coloured inks on paper, 290 x 475 mm.

‘Max has kept journals all his life, there are something like 40 to 50 of them. He gave Alan access to the whole body and he made a selection from them especially for this book. Sometimes they’re just verbal ideas or quasi-poems; frequently they’re drawings. Alan has included facsimiles of quite a number of drawings and sometimes of the writing too if it’s particularly interesting to look at. In the treatment of the text he’s made a kind of typographical interpretation of Max’s characteristic block capitals. So the text is all in different sizes.’

What makes each book unique is that each copy includes two original art works on paper by Gimblett. ‘Max specially made close to 200 of them,’ Simpson explains. ‘Two of these were chosen for each of the 80 copies.’

Searchings is also ‘a combination of old and new technology,’ Simpson explains. ‘It is not printed in this case from the actual old-fashioned lead type, but from a computerized version. The whole book was designed on computer, then each page was made into a photopolymer plate. However, the actual printing used the traditional letterpress method.’

MAX GIMBLETT Script from Searching 2006

Simpson is particularly proud of his involvement with the work of Leo Bensemann, which reflects his special interest in this Christchurch artist and printer. Holloway has produced two volumes of Bensemann’s graphic work, including the 1997 Fantastica,3 which was printed using the original metal blocks that Bensemann used in the first 1937 publication.

More recently, Simpson has produced yet another celebration of Bensemann’s art in the 1996 Engravings on Wood, printing from blocks mostly first cut in the 1940s.4 For Simpson this project represented an important link with the tradition of the Caxton Press for whom Bensemann printed wood engravings by artists such as E. Mervyn Taylor and Rhona Dyer from the artists’original wood blocks.

Holloway has had the sort of successes that bigger houses might envy. Len Lye’s Happy Moments sold out extremely quickly when it appeared in 2002. This book gathers together a collection of autobiographical statements, plus some of Lye’s characteristic ‘doodles’ (as he called them); the texts are often extremely short, and include what Simpson describes as ‘very very vivid pieces of writing.’

LEN LYE Doodle from Happy Moments 2002

He reads to me from the strange and unsettling tale of an octopus who falls victim to brutish and unprovoked violence by the young Lye, who records the disturbing event with uncompromising honesty:
Looking for a stick to stop the octopus from getting away I found a piece of five-by-three timber about five or six feet long. Then I took the biggest rocks I could manage. Sure enough he was still messing around and his head had come out. I let him have a rock to keep him from getting back to his crack, and more, and more. I got him between the rocks in the shallows and jabbed and poked and prised and went beserk and, my god, in an utter frenzy I killed him. Judging by the mess he had a lot of ink. I don’t think I told anyone about it, not even getting my younger brother to take a look. I felt quite good about it but a little strange.

Another successful publication was Rita: Seven Poems by Colin McCahon:

‘This is a sequence of poems about Rita Angus probably written soon after her death,’ Simpson explains. ‘They were interesting not only biographically but also as pieces of writing. We reproduce Colin’s handwriting in facsimile and then on the facing page we have the transcription of the words.’

The irony is that the unique originals of these letters, bought by Auckland University and displayed in the library, were stolen (along with a Goldie and a valuable bible) and the Holloway book was the only record of their existence until their recent recovery.

Letter from Colin McCahon to Rita Angus from Rita: Seven Poems by Colin McCahon

With retirement not so far away, Simpson is pondering the future of the press. It ‘started by a historical accident’ and ‘the danger is that when I go the thing will die, so I am trying quite hard to find a way for the press will continue for at least a few more years under my direction.’

‘You could see the Holloway Press as an anachronism,’ Simpson ponders. ‘Why bother to keep this ancient technology alive when it’s completely impractical for modern needs? But I follow the Marshall McLuhan idea that when technology becomes obsolete for practical or business purposes, it becomes available for art. The kind of press we use is a cylinder proofing press, the sort of machine widely used in the earlier decades of the twentieth century for running off a version before printers put their work on the big machines. When computer typesetting came in these proofing presses were absolutely redundant. You could pick up these magnificent pieces of technology for almost nothing; but they were eminently capable of being adapted to new purposes.

‘Perhaps,’ Simpson proposes, with a slight smile, ‘it’s the very difference of this technology from that of the computer age that appeals to people about it?’

1. Francis Pound, ‘Once More Into The Dark’, Art New Zealand 99,Winter 2001, pp. 99-103.
2. The Holloway Press has published books by Curnow, Duggan and Sargeson; see www.hollowaypress.auckland.ac.nz for a complete list.
3. See Noel Waite, ‘A Tradition Continued’, Art New Zealand 85, Summer 1997-98, p. 71; the illustrations in Fantastica were originally pen-and-ink drawings which were made into metal blocks for printing.
4. See Campbell Smith, ‘Engravings on Wood’, Art New Zealand 118, Autumn 2006, pp. 87-88.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 125 Summer 2007-08