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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Private printing

Private printing

The notion of a private press is at best ambiguous, and the vagaries of categorical definition are no less evident here in New Zealand. By chance the most comprehensive book on the general subject is by an author who lived and worked for a time as Professor of Librarianship at Victoria University of Wellington during the 1980s. In Private Presses (2nd ed. 1983) Cave acknowledges the difficulties of defining a subject where 'waywardness and eccentricity are in the traditions of the material'. As a broad generalisation, he suggests that a private press is an unofficial press that runs not for profit, but to produce works of some aesthetic merit for a restricted audience. The distinction he makes, that the same press prints the material as publishes it, had until the 1980s little relevance in New Zealand, where most publishers had their own printing arm. Enthusiasm for printing is clearly a prerequisite and most presses are informed by a strong craft ethic. The anachronism that is the hand press has also increasingly come to be associated with the reprinting of rare or obscure texts.

Aside from half a chapter in Cave's book (pp.284-91), there is little in the way of general reference material concerning private presses in New Zealand. Eugene Grayland notes in Private Presses: Their Contributions to Literature and Typography (1947) their role in 'developing our native literature', but offers little extra detail. Lawlor also devotes chapter 2, part 2 of his book of reminiscences Books and Bookmen (1954) to private presses. Philip Parr, in 'History of hobby printing in Australasia' (1980), provides a brief survey of the completely 'not-for-profit' group of presses in both Australia and New Zealand. In Vinculum 8 Parr offers the following definition of 'Private Printing in New Zealand': 'There is a PRIVATE PRESS when the operator runs it:—for his own enjoyment, being in full control of every choice, with persistent effort to improve techniques, without seeking financial gain (although he may sell some items to help cover costs)'.

Specific presses singled out by Cave were the early Caxton Press, Nag's Head Press, Wai-te-ata Press, Eugene Grayland's Colenso Press, Noel Hoggard's Handcraft Press and Hawk Press. To this list, Lawlor added Lowry's Unicorn Press, Ron Holloway's Griffin Press, and the Pelorus and Pegasus Presses. The last named of these seems hard to reconcile with most accepted definitions of private press, although Pegasus was clearly well regarded for the standard of its press work. The flamboyant Geoffrey Count Potocki de Montalk also operated a number of private presses, but mostly abroad—see his Myself as Printer, (1970). Noel Waite's PhD thesis 'Adventure and art: literature publishing in Christchurch 1934-95' (1997) provides histories and checklists of the Caxton, Pegasus, Nag's Head, Hawk and Hazard Presses, as well as providing a wider infrastructural context. Waite also has a brief checklist for the Arbor Press. The remarkable duo behind the Caxton Press, Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann, accounted for a number of small presses. Bensemann's Huntsbury Press occupied his retirement, while Glover in Wellington had a series of presses: Catspaw, Mermaid and Capricorn.

Two books that appeared on the occasion of the Auckland Festival are useful guides to the activities of the Auckland presses of the 1950s: Writing in Auckland by J.C. Reid, an exhibition arranged by the Auckland Public Libraries (1955), and Printed in Auckland (1956). An article in the latter entitled 'Some Auckland presses of today' describes how Ron Holloway's Griffin Press merged with Lowry's Unicorn in 1938, and Lowry went on to establish Pelorus Press (1947) and later the Pilgrim Press. Although these presses were more commercial in nature, A.R.D. Fairburn's The Sky is a Limpet (1939) and How to Ride a Bicycle in Seventeen Lovely Colours (1946) can fairly be labelled private press offerings.

Noel Hoggard (1912-75) was a most dogged and prolific private press operator with his Handcraft Press. His hand-set publications, which were generally of a literary nature, included The Maorilander, Spilt Ink (1932), New Triad (1937), and Arena (1946-75) which ran to 81 issues. Stephen Hamilton's PhD thesis 'New Zealand English language periodicals of literary interest active 1920s-60s' (1996) details the contents of these journals. In the first ten years of his press Hoggard also published 40 books of poetry and essays, and introduced three local newspapers.

In the 1960s several 'bibliographical' presses were established by those wishing, among other things, to teach the methods of textual transmission in the medium of print as practised in the handpress era. Although these presses were attached to institutions of learning, they were run by enthusiasts, whose productions went beyond the call of duty. The first of these was W.J. Cameron, who in 1960 issued a series of bibliographical pamphlets printed by students on the Albion handpress in the Department of English, University of Auckland. Next, in 1961, came the Bibliography Room, since 1966 located in the University of Otago Library, founded by David Esplin and Keith Maslen. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Maslen printed works by a number of New Zealand poets, including James K. Baxter's The Lion Skin(1967) and Jerusalem Sonnets(1971). The most distinguished and productive of these presses was Wai-te-ata Press under D.F. McKenzie, one-time professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington. The Wai-te-ata Press 1962-92 (1992) provides a comprehensive checklist of that press's activities. Massey University also has a Bibliography Room. Many other educational institutions from time to time have had what might be called hobby presses.

The 1970s saw a return to private presses by a generation that felt excluded from mainstream publications. This coincided with the availability of relatively cheap hand presses which were no longer required with the increasing move to offset printing. These offered the possibility of publication with full control over production at an affordable price. It also accorded with a renewal of interest in craft values. Notable amongst these were Bruce Mitcalfe's idiosyncratic Coromandel Press and Alan Loney's Hawk Press. From about 1975 until the early 1990s under the imprint of Hawk Press Alan Loney printed a series of works, mainly by contemporary New Zealand poets, distinguished by the high quality of design and workmanship. Later, in the 1980s, came Warwick Jordan's Hard Echo Press. The latter achieved the feat of hand-setting an entire novel, Mike Johnson's Lear (1986).

Walter Lemm (Imp Press, Auckland) founded the Association of Handcraft Printers in 1973, and both are still going strong. The list of members of May 1995 names 73 private (as opposed to institutional) New Zealand members and their presses. The biennial Vinculum, made up of leaves contributed by members as a showcase of their work, reached no.46 in December 1996. The Association's quarterly newsletter includes news of members' doings. A catalogue of the books belonging to the library of the Association of Handcraft Printers as of July 1993 was issued in 1993 by the Librarian, John Denny, from his Puriri Press, Auckland. Noteworthy members, not elsewhere mentioned in this brief survey, include Charles Alldritt, Auckland; the Brebners, whose john allison/homeprint presses were run first from the Manawatu Museum and then from their home in Feilding; Bruce Grenville, Sedang Press, Auckland; Tony King, Ark Press, Wellington; Phil Parr, joint founder/patron, Aspect Press, Levin; Sydney J. Shep and Timothy Hurd, Silent Isle Press (Dr Shep also currently manages the Wai-te-ata Press); and Mark K. Venables, Mt St John Press, Auckland. Robert S. (Bob) Gormack, at the Nag's Head Press, Christchurch, has long been noted for his impeccable printing and the special flavour of his writing, which may be exemplified by The Centennial History of Barnego Flat (general editor, E. Dadds [Robert Gormack], Part 1, 1964). For further information see Gormack (1992). The Ferrymead Printing Society at the Ferrymead Print Shop, Christchurch, also deserves particular mention.

A resurgence in the book arts in the 1980s has seen an increase in small presses committed to high quality, but also willing to be experimental. Notable amongst these were Tara McLeod's Pear Tree Press, John Denny's Puriri Press, and Alan Loney's latest efforts at the Black Light and the Holloway Presses—the latter using materials transferred from the Griffin Press, when in 1994 the Holloway Press was established on the Tamaki Campus of the University of Auckland. The long-lived Griffin Press of Ronald and Kay Holloway features in the latter's autobiography (1994). In 1989, Alan Loney founded the Book Arts Society, which the following year published a limited edition, designed, printed and bound by Alan Loney at Black Light Press, of Art of the Book (1990). The catalogue was compiled by Rowan Gibbs. The Society also issues a newsletter.

It has to be admitted that the work of private printers is variable in quality. The typographical renaissance of the late 1940s in New Zealand owed more to printers, such as Denis Glover and others at the Caxton Press, who made their bread and butter by commercial printing, but took pains to produce some work to the highest possible artistic standard, regardless of the financial return. Their example may serve to underline the point that where such achievements are concerned the dividing line between commercial and private printers can be hard to draw.