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The Journal of New Zealand Art History
, volume 27, 2006, pp 101-103


On passing a copy of Engravings on Wood by Leo Bensemann to a colleague to view, the immediate reaction was ‘Wow, what a book!’ This large format, limited edition, sturdily bound copy of Bensemann’s Engravings on Wood out of the Holloway Press, University of Auckland, certainly commands such a response. Peter Simpson, of the English Department and general editor of the Holloway Press, and Tara McLeod, printer to the Press, have produced in this one volume a lasting record of Bensemann’s work as an engraver. Indeed, as evident on the front cover of the March 2005 issue of University of Auckland News, both men are all smiles, standing beside the hand press with unbound sheets of the book sitting tidily on the platen. As instigators of this project, they can be justly proud. The publication is an impressive volume and a quantum leap forward from previous Holloway Press publications: witness their Robin Hyde’s The Victory Hymn, 1935-1995 (1995), Annie and Harold Beauchamp’s A Shipboard Diary (1997), and the more recent R. A. K. Mason’s Four Short Stories (2003).

Simpson has written extensively on Leo Bensemann (1912-1986) and curated a touring exhibition that highlighted the artist’s work, ‘Rita Angus & Leo Bensemann: The Canterbury Years’ (2000). He clearly admires Bensemann and is determined to do his utmost to restore the artist’s reputation and increase the awareness of his work to a wider and appreciative public. Bensemann is no stranger to the Holloway Press camp, with a reprinted edition of his Fantastica: 13 Drawings completed by the Press in 1996. This volume is but a natural extension of Simpson’s advocacy.

Fortunately the original boxwood blocks that Bensemann used to create the images are extant. Simpson obtained them from the artist’s family for this project and in order to show Bensemann in his best light, 22 of some 30 blocks were selected, chosen because they represented ‘all the engravings on wood that Bensemann brought to a state of successful resolution.[1] Eleven of them have been published before, appearing in publications that are now quite scarce, e.g. Book and Printing Types (2nd ed., 1956). The other eleven are published for the first time, albeit with clarification: a few exist in the form of prints held in public and private collections, and three are variants published in other versions: ‘Ophelia’, ‘Maori’ and ‘Merman’. It is a fitting appearance, consistent with the purpose and scope of the Holloway Press, which is ‘to publish a range of texts appropriate to the technology of handprinting which have unusual literary, artistic, scholarly and/or historical interest and which are unsuitable for commercial publication.[2]

The images encapsulate Bensemann’s artistic skill. They range from the relatively small Ophelia (plate II) and Design (plate XVI) to the large and dark Boy (plate III), and to the ornate and more problematic in actual printing Death & the Woodcutter (plate IX). The images are the essence of the book: solid substantial black with wispy white lines on Italian Tiepolo paper; simply unforgettable. Acknowledging that an artist such as Bensemann needs contextualising, Simpson has also provided a very useful introduction to his life, influences and art skills: a portraitist, a landscapist, a designer of bookplates and more besides. Simpson makes an interesting point about Bensemann’s artistic vision which contrasts with that of his friends and contemporaries in New Zealand. The images Bensemann produced (with few exceptions) were not local flavour stuff, were not the hackneyed images of New Zealand birds, nor the regionalist landscape scenes of the 1940s. Instead, he drew on other subjects, utilising his favourite literary influences: William Shakespeare, Aesop, myths, legends and folklore. As one flips through the images in this book, there is a definite Scandinavian-cum-Russian feeling to some, an ‘otherworldliness’ evoked in others, with even a creditable Rumpelstiltskin (Ball Dance, Plate VI) tossed in for good measure. Simpson suggests that Bensemann was ‘out of key’; my stand is that he was ‘right on key’ – the only stance an artist can have as he comes to grips with his work and his place in the universe. In this, Bensemann is like the poet Charles Brasch. He fixed his line to his star and stubbornly did his own thing, not only because he liked to do what he did but because for him it was the only way to do it. Honest individual integrity is a rare thing. Perhaps that is what makes Bensemann’s images so unforgettable. They are branded with his own unique style, undeniably Bensemann with a capital ‘B’. And like them or not, you cannot disregard their impact.

For those print and art historians, as well as future students of art, there is an extremely useful note section which offers bibliographical information on the blocks themselves: their genesis, including references in personal letters, their construction, where they first appeared (if at all), and other related information. It is great to hear Bensemann’s voice in all this: ‘Olivia Spencer-Bower lent me a big piece of boxwood. It’s the ideal stuff for engraving on but hellish expensive and unprocurable out here. It’s a beautiful piece of wood and I’m almost too scared to touch it.’ The artist in the man continues: ‘But I’ll have (a go) at it…[3] Moreover, the notes, which include a succinct explanation about the mediums of wood-engraving and the wood-cut, offer a reminder of a past art form that has largely disappeared because of photo-mechanical processes and the advent of computerisation. Wood engraving has had very few practitioners in New Zealand, the most notable being E. Mervyn Taylor and Rona Dyer. Bensemann can be placed alongside them in significance.

Engravings on Wood is produced in an edition of 100. According to McLeod, production was not easy and there were two specific problems. Firstly, the increased time spent on damping the Tiepolo sheets, a favourite paper among many hand-craft printers, but now sadly discontinued. The dampening process was done the previous day, with the sheets placed under pressure for the next morning’s printing. This process was vital, especially when inking huge blocks of black – and wanting to get the result just right. Secondly, there were flaws in some of the blocks. Those that Denis Glover brought back from England were good, although several were made up in sections which are only now beginning to separate; for example, the portrait of Mary Bensemann, the artist’s wife (Plate X). Other blocks were somewhat rough and not dead flat. Indeed, the block for Strange Outlandish Fowl (Plate I) was over type high (as referenced in the notes) while others had corners rounded that required separate hand-rolling to complete the inking. In some cases, McLeod wondered how the original printing was done. For the experienced printer and perfectionist, wastage is a fact of life; McLeod estimated this at about ten per cent, which is about the normal going rate.

In his introduction, Simpson quotes Eric Gill on wood-engraving as a medium: ‘The advantage of wood-engraving … is that it does away with several sets of middle men and places the responsibility upon the shoulders of the workman. The workman who draws, engraves and prints his own blocks is master of the situation. He can blame nobody but himself if his work goes wrong…[4] This process no doubt suited Bensemann. McLeod’s modern-day input must also be recognised, for even though he did not create the blocks, they have been printed with such skill and mastery (and no doubt with a bit of cursing and swearing), as if they were his. Indeed, one can well imagine ‘Big B’ breathing over McLeod’s shoulder while a block was inked! Thus the book is the result of an artist working with the work of an artist, and full credit to McLeod, the best limited edition bookmaker-craft printer in New Zealand, for producing a technically challenging volume, both in text and images.

This book should be in all major New Zealand libraries, special collections departments and research art gallery libraries. It will no doubt be coveted by private collectors with money and taste. Unfortunately, the cost of it (and the portfolio of ten prints) will be daunting to smaller libraries as handsome quality such as this does not come cheap – nor should it. Bensemann and his art deserve to be on more bookshelves. Perhaps after this, a trade edition could be produced that would make this remarkable Canterbury artist’s work much more readily accessible. I certainly hope so.

Leo Bensemann, Engravings on Wood, Peter Simpson (ed.), Auckland: The Holloway Press, 2004, unpaginated, ISBN 0-9582313-5-4.
Recommended retail price $500.00; optional portfolio of ten prints $1000.00.


[1] Simpson, Introduction, p. [7].
[2] <http://www.hollowaypress.auckland.ac.nz/>, accessed 20 January 2006. 
[3] Bensemann. Letter to Les Stapp, November 1939.
[4] Eric Gill, from his introduction to Wood Engraving by John R. Beedham, 2nd ed. (London: Faber & Faber, 1948), cited by Simpson in his introduction, p. [9].