Home and Building, Volume 18 Number 1 (June 1955)
the caxton press
This talk on an important New Zealand publishing house was originally broadcast, from Y.C. stations, Radio N.Z. Short Wave, and later from Sydney for the New South Wales State Programme. The writer reminds us that changes have naturally taken place since the time of writing. Denis Glover who worked for a period with the Pegasus Press in Christchurch, is now on the staff of the Wingfield Press, Wellington. In the meantime the Caxton Press has issued many new volumes, notably poetry.
Victoria Street in Christchurch looks very much like any other street in a New Zealand city. A double row of tram tracks runs down the centre; and on either side of the moving traffic there are the usual number of gasoline stations, and shops crouching beneath wooden verandahs. But since the depression years something has been happening behind one of these shop-fronts that has proved to be of some significance in the growth of New Zealand literature. I refer to the publishing work carried out in a small printing shop known as the Caxton Press. From the time that the New Zealand poet Denis Glover founded this press, to the present day, a new texture and impetus has been given to New Zealand writing. Aided by the Caxton Press, a sizeable group of our writers has been lifted from relative obscurity, and placed before a national, and in some cases international audience. A good example of this is provided in the work of Frank Sargeson. Since the time that Caxton published his early stories he has had several volumes produced by the English publisher John Lehmann, as well as having his work translated into several languages. He is now considered one of the most important writers this country has produced since the time of Katherine Mansfield. I am not suggesting that Sargeson would not have succeeded without a champion. I merely wish to emphasise that he would not have gained the attention that he did, at the time that he did, if it had not been for the presence of the Caxton Press.page 17
What is true of Sargeson is true of many others. Names such as A. R. D. Fairburn, James K. Baxter, Allan Curnow, and so on are common enough to reading New Zealanders. But it is doubtful if the position of these people would be as healthy as it is today, if they'd had to contend with the metallic soil of orthodox colonial magazines.
The Caxton Press has been in existence for twenty years now yet for the purpose of making a true assessment of its work, this rims is too short. But I am sure that any future assessment will concede these points. It has conducted New Zealand literature from what may be called its late infancy, to what may be called its late adolescence. And, it has helped to make us notice standards of typography and book production. There is no doubt that Caxton printing is held in high regard; at the time I was working there I can remember enquiries for samples of work coming in from printing institutions and typographic foundations in all parts of the world. Practical expressions of this interest have also been made. The English publisher John Lehmann has had work by Laurie Lee and Edith Sitwell printed there, and the Henry Regnery Co. of Chicago has had the sheets of a whole book produced there, and shipped to America. The New Zealand book collector, P. A. Lawlor, points out in a recent booklet that not only do buyers purchase out-of-print Caxton books for figures well above their published prices, but they also purchase nearly everything that comes from the press, including proof sheets and routine book catalogues.
All this had its birth in a basement at Canterbury College in April, 1932. Denis Glover, who was then an undergraduate there organised a printing club within the framework of the ordinary college societies. It was called (after the English printer William Caxton), the Caxton Club Press, and was concerned chiefly with experimental printing. All the equipment they had at this time was a small press and a handful of types, yet many proofsheets, pamphlets, and student manifestoes came out of this basement. It was these manifestoes that ultimately led to the true press being formed, for certain of the contents of Oriflamme and Sirroco (the two literary magazines that the club printed) led to a clash with the University authorities, and the press was moved. It set up again in an old barn-like building at 152 Peterborough St., this time as a private press well out of the University's jurisdiction.
Further equipment was gathered, Glover entered into partnership with John Drew, and the word 'Club' was dropped from the title. From this time onwards the press was an ordinary commercial enterprise, but—it was a commercial enterprise with a difference. Unlike most printing house proprietors at the time, Denis Glover was interested in literature. He was aware that much good writing never saw the light of day in this country because orthodox publishers considered it a bad risk. In the same way he knew that run-of-the-mill magazines were stuffily conservative in their attitude to modern poetry, and preferred to fill up their blank spaces with on excessively sentimental and dilapidated form of Georgian verse. He determined to provide some sort of outlet for this, and the method he used was extremely simple. All he did waspage 19
pause occasionally, stop printing dance tickets or mortgage forms, and bring out material by New Zealand writers. By the time that the press had again moved into a larger wooden building next to a plumber's warehouse in Victoria St., it had already published work by Allan Curnow, R. A. K. Mason and D'Arcy Cresswell, as well as printing for the first time in this country the work of Ursula Bethell. These new quarters at 129 Victoria St. remained the home of the press until it shifted again in 1950 into a brick building especially built for the purpose further down the street.
It was in the rickety building at 129, the most of Caxton's best work to date has been done. To give even a fleeting account of the material that came out during this period would be impossible, since the list ranges from Boccaccio to Holcroft, from Yeats to Rewi Alley. This period saw the appearance of two literary magazines and the launching of a regular series of poetry volumes. 'Book', the first literary magazine, was an excellent little miscellany which ran from 1941 to 1947, when it was superseded by Landfall. Its pages contained drawings by Caxton's gifted artist Leo Bensemann, as well as verse, stories, and exercises in typography. Attention to good typographical standards has been one of the chief concerns of the press — but I shall say more of this in a moment. 'Landfall', the literary magazine that was launched in 1947, is still with us, and I hope it will stay. Suffering a little at times from a sort of staid flatulence, it has nevertheless published much good material, retained high standards, and raised itself to a position of influence and respect. In 1948 a series of volumes of poetry was begun called the Caxton Poets. These poets differ in mood and depth, but most of their work is distinct and sincere. One of them, James K. Baxter, stands out from the rest. I have mentioned how good printing and typography has been the chief concern of the press and how its work has helped to raise a new sensibility to printing formats here in New Zealand. Lying behind this emphasis on clean craftsmanship is an outlook, in fact a credo. But as this credo is not native to this country, and as its ideas were not formulated in Canterbury in the 1930's I shall have to digress a moment.
The years 1830 to 1860, bracketted a decline in taste in England that was quite remarkable in its intensity. Hand-craftsmen were being rapidly replaced by machine mass production. If anything could be stamped, moulded, or weaved by machinery, it was. Fabrics, pottery, and furnishings became increasingly vulgar and tasteless, partly because they were produced hurriedly to meet the growing market, partly because the new wealth that the Industrial Revolution had given the merchant classes was used by them to make a show of it. One of the pleasures of being opulent is looking opulent. They chose to assert their new class by acting like gentlefolk, by building large houses, and by furnishing lavishly. As far as possible the lower classes copied them. The result was a wave of ugliness that almost defies description. Buildings became gross shams of masonry designed entirely for show, and not for comfort. Clothing became ornate and uncomfortable (you wore as much as you possibly could) — and ugliest of all were the interiors. While smoke belching factories raped the countryside the middle classes raped their own homes withpage 21
rubbish and bric-a-brac. Open a door and you would see a committee of antimacassars, pinnacles of pottery, and jungles of aspidistras. Just as the building outside had turrets and fretted canopies, so did the interior bulge with the over-ornamental, the complicated, and the counterfeit. This sickness, this decline, also showed in the printing of the period. Sensitive men revolted against the lack of beauty of their age and began various complicated aesthetic movements. Such a man was William Morris. His work touched many field's, but the one that concerns me here is printing. Morris was dis-qusted at the tawdry and expressionless books of his period, and set up a press to print better ones. It was called the Kelmscott Press, and in unison with others it engineered the English Renaissance of printing standards that was mirrored in our own country in the thirties. The work of the Caxton, the Pegasus, the Pelorous, and other craft presses here in New Zealand, has been a modified continuation of the revival of interest in printing that took place in England in the last century.
"I began printing books," said Morris, "with the hope of producing something which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye or trouble the intellect …"
'Typography," Glover says, "Is simply the printing of words in the way in which they can best be read and understood." Simple as this sounds, behind it lies Glover's skill as a typographer. Simple as these precepts are, in them lies part of the story of New Zealand's most important private press. 'Part of the story' because the rest is made up of human qualities, of the insight and unselfishness inherent in the men who turned a nest of clanking platens into a significant publishing house. As time passes it will become plain that the Caxton Press has indeed played the role of midwife to important colonial literature.