This is a rare and exciting book. It celebrates the Wood Engravings of Leo Bensemann (1912-1986)—which are just one aspect of a man of many talents who, as typographer and printer, made a special contribution to the arts of this country.
In his introduction Peter Simpson says that on Bensemann’s death in 1986 among the many items left in his studio were dozens of wood and metal blocks. The metal ones were mainly used to make photolithographic reproductions of his drawings. These were used in two major books, Fantastica—13 Drawings by Leo Bensemann (1937) and A Second Book of Leo Bensemann’s Work (1952), both published by Caxton. In 1997 the Holloway Press reprinted Fantastica with notes by Peter Simpson.
The poet and printer, Denis Glover founded The Caxton Press. In 1937, while he was helping to print Bensemann’s Fantastica, Glover was so impressed by the way Bensemann handled the printing press that he was invited to become a partner. A momentous decision, for as printer and typographer, he was to become the cornerstone of Caxton until he retired some 40 years later.
Socially and artistically it was a great move, not only for him, but for the future of the arts in New Zealand. It allowed him to become involved in within a group of artists, poets and writers. Among these was Professor James Shelley, of whom Bensemann made drawings. Shelley, who was later to become Head of New Zealand Broadcasting, had established a little theatre on campus.
Grom Glyn Strange’s The Little Theatre—-Golden Years of the New Zealand Stage (Clerestory Press, 2000). A quote which today we will find parochial but in the culturally arid years of the 1930’s was probably correct, declares:
Providence and global warfare had conspired to detain Ngaio Marsh, Douglas Lilburn, Jack Henderson and others in Christchurch. They made the Little Theatre as important to New Zealand’s cultural awakening as was the Caxton Press to literature, and the Canterbury School of Arts to the visual arts.
As Caxton printed the theatre programmes, Bensemann must have been at the centre of the group and although he only attended night classes, he also became part of the Art School circle.
Francis Shurrock (1887-1977) was an Englishman who came out to lecture in sculpture at the Art School. One of his students was Mary Barrett, who in 1943 became Mrs Bensemann. Shurrock introduced Bensemann to wood engraving and also to Morris Dancing. A lively caper indeed!
Leo wrote to his friend, Rex Byrne, ‘I have sold a print of a wood engraving. The first picture I have ever sold in an exhibition’. Ball Dance was bought by Shurrock, from the 1940 Group Show and he later gifted it to Christchurch's Robert McDougall Art Gallery.
In her book The Arts & Crafts Movement in New Zealand, 1870-1940 (Auckland University Press, 2000), Ann Calhoun interviews Florence Atkins, lecturer at the School of Art from 1927 to 1968:
Shurry cleared his front room and it’s a wonder the floor survived. Shurry and Leo practised their Morris jigs. Leo just about lived there. It was an antidote to the atmosphere of the school. It was life. It did much for us. It was extraordinary.
Working as a printer provided frequent opportunities for Bensemann to observe the graphic arts. The Caxton Press was greatly influenced by the modern revolution in typography and book design in England, as well as such private presses as The Golden Cockerel, and artist-printers like Eric Gill (who was also a very fine wood-engraver). During the 1940s the New Zealand Arts Year Book featured a number of wood engravers, including a British artist, Lady Mabel Annesley (1881-1959) who was living at Takaka, Leo Bensemann’s Birthplace.
In 1946 Caxton published Wood Engravings by Mervyn Taylor and Rona Dyer’s Engravings on Wood (1948). The Caxton Book, No. 8, of 1946 have an overview by Arthur C. Hipwell, Woodcuts and Wood Engravings which was illustrated with prints by Durer, Thomas Bewick and the New Zealanders , E Mervyn Taylor, Stewart Maclennan and Leo Bensemann's Strange Outlandish Fowl and Maori.
In 1938 Bensemann was invited to join The Group, a select band of Christchurch artists. He exhibited in most of their annual shows with paintings, oils, watercolours and some engravings. A Group member, Olivia Spencer-Bower, gave him his first piece of Box Wood. He writes to a friend, ‘It’s a beautiful piece of wood, I’m almost too scared to touch it. But I’ll have a go!'. It was probably put aside until a subject was ready, maybe the print of Mary Bensemann. In the meantime he was engraving book plates which, no doubt proudly identified the books of Charles Spear, Lawrence Baigent, Denis Glover, Rex Byrne and Basil Dowling. A bookplate for J.H.B. is included in the book.
In his life time Bensemann only published 11 wood engravings. Of the 30 woodblocks left in his studio, 22 have been selected for printing.
Maori is the head of a warrior. There are two in the book. It is one of the few prints which refers to the local background. While in the 1940s artists in New Zealand were seeking a strong nationalism, Bensemann was responding to his own voice. As a descendant from German and Irish immigrants, he immersed himself in German art, literature and music to which there is a strong link through all his graphic work. Evidently his paintings, both oils and watercolours, were of this country but his wood engravings, apart from the two portraits, are from his imagination, or from literature. Nevertheless throughout his lifetime in his work as a printer, Leo Bensemann made a most important contribution to the Arts of this country.
The book is dedicated to Caroline Otto, Leo Bensemann’s daughter. It has been superbly printed by Tara McLeod on an Asbern cylinder press. Text is 12 pt Janson and on the Title page they have used Eric Gill’s Perpetua Roman. The woodblocks are printed directly in a rich, black ink on Tiepolo, a heavyweight cotton paper imported from Italy.
Everything about this book is of the highest quality and craftsmanship. So the values set by the Caxton Press all those years ago, are richly celebrated in this collector's item of a limited edition of 100 copies.
Special thanks to all concerned, the Bensemann family, the Holloway Press of the University of Auckland and congratulations to to all those behind this most splendid production.
1. Editor’s note.: The reviewer is mistaken here. The wood engraving donated by Shurrock to the McDougall was Death and the Woodcutter. It is unlikely that this was the purchase referred to in Bensemann’s letter as no engraving of that name was exhibited at the 1940 Group Show. Two of his engravings were exhibited in the 1940 Group Show: Head (presumably either II, also known as Ophelia, or XV(ii)) and Strange Outlandish Fowle. Ball Dance is probably the work entitled Dance in the 1949 Group Show. (PAS)
2. Editor’s note: Most of Bensemann’s bookplates were pen and ink drawings made into metal blocks by a photolithographic process. J.H.B. is unique among his work as a wood-engraved book plate. (PAS)