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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Printing in New Zealand got away to a bad start. It was a missionary venture, and notions of typographical style did not exist. Apart from poor presswork, the types and their presentation were undistinguished, and the printing itself was clumsily functional. It must also be remembered that, by the thirties of last century, standards of English design were entering a long decline which not even the precept and example of William Morris in the late nineties could level off. We inherited a bad tradition, and the untidy struggle of pioneering provided neither the men nor the means to improve it. The dismal banality of Victorian printing suited very well the dismal banality of our literature and most of our architecture. There was no competition for the “modern” faces stemming from Bodoni, which is in itself a vulgar face, until the introduction of Old Style. This coincided with the arrival of the linotype about the turn of the century, and proved for a long time to be the biggest single factor in freezing type design anywhere. Our machine faces were – and largely still are – Moderns and Old Style. The vogue for tin-fence Century and tin-pot Cheltenham remained a force majeure in New Zealand printing until the thirties of this century.

Although printing is our ninth-rating industry (1962–63), with 10,000 employed and an annual output valued at more than £31 million, it is not the purpose of this article to examine its ephemera. Books are the most enduring and therefore the most important form of printing; yet, until recently, it was not possible to produce attractive books. Jobbing and newspaper work dictated types and styles. Book printing overseas is a specialised business. Here, even today, we have but a handful of firms who concentrate on it – Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. (especially the Christchurch branch), and the Caxton Press and Pegasus Press of Christchurch. The Government Printer has a big output of books, mainly scientific or technological, and these show evidence of careful and often highly successful design. It is significant that all these firms have Monotype faces available. The Monotype is not widely used in this country. It is perhaps a third dearer to operate than slug-casting machines, but is twice as good for bookwork, though compositors not used to handling it are unreasonably prejudiced. The Government Printer has (at present) our only Monophoto Filmsetter and is busy assessing its possibilities for our essentially short-run offset lithography processes. Shortly after the Second World War, Monoset Ltd., a trade-setting firm in Christchurch, installed a fine range of book faces, later acquired by Whitcombe and Tombs. Acquisition is one thing and use another, but the fact is that where our earlier typographers were always, through limitation of means, forced to ingenious improvising, the typographer of today has a fairly wide choice of good faces for book composition which, in general, he makes good use of.

By the beginning of the First World War excellent machining (not excluding colour) was being done; but standards of typography lagged the usual 20 or so years behind England's. The art-craft movement, an inevitable outcome of the misapplications of Morris's work, did not affect New Zealand except in a leaning from Modern to Old Style which was an uneasy attempt to tidy up the genuine Old Face, and in a brief rash of badly designed initial letters and exotic founts.

Improving Standards

Our typographical naissance did not take place till the early thirties – not more than a dozen years behind the authentic renaissance in England. The credit must go to R. W. Lowry, who at Auckland Grammar School discovered a master, Gerry Lee, with a handpress and a collection of old type faces. Fired with enthusiasm and possessed of an instinctive flair for bold and masterly use of type, Lowry found himself at the university in the midst of an upsurge of creative writing. In the magazine Phoenix, edited by James Bertram and, later, by R. A. K. Mason, he was able to give himself full expression. Several notable books, slight in bulk, came from several presses, one of the most interesting being a collection of Mason's poems. In the absence of good machine type faces (and money) he did a great deal of hand setting, and quickly discovered the rugged authority of Caslon Old Face. He was also one of our first users of Gill Sans. Without devoting himself too closely to the minutiae of typography, he always showed a sure and characteristic touch without any tendency towards the “ye olde” private-pressery that can become so tastefully similar.

His example was followed by the Caxton Club Press at Canterbury University College. Here, too, existed a group of young writers some of whom are now well known. The work was undistinguished at first – there was no money for foundry types, and the linotype faces available to the trade were Century, Textype, and one Old Style without italic. In 1936 the Caxton Press was put on a modest business footing, and continued to build up types for eventual full book production. Right from the beginning an emphasis was given to the publication of New Zealand literature in the best attainable formats, though it was not for some years that a trade setter could be persuaded to put in the matrices for 11-point Baskerville with italics and small caps. The Caxton Press has been practically alone in printing books for the sake of printing. These include an Areopagitica and a Boccaccio story hand set in Caslon, Hero and Leander hand set in Perpetua italic, and numerous smaller books produced with an indifference to selling price. Its two type specimen books were something new for this country, combining pleasant literary extracts with colourful display. A fine edition of The Ancient Mariner, illustrated and embellished by Leo Bensemann, was produced, together with a couple of books of that artist-typographer's own work in various media.

Last founded, the Pegasus Press has done good traditional bookwork, with meticulous attention to detail and presswork. It uses the same trade faces as the Caxton Press and the same bindery, but the Pegasus Press is not afraid of bold unorthodox treatment of jackets and prelims. This may be justified in novels, with which these presses have had successful experience.

The happy conjunction of J. C. Beaglehole and Joseph Heenan (later Sir Joseph), Secretary for Internal Affairs, produced the Centennial Survey series and several other notable books either through the Government Printer or Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. For the series, 13-point Bembo was specially imported. As an amateur learning much as he went along, Beaglehole considered carefully each detail of “style” and composition. Both the Government Printer and Whitcombe's have magnificent plant, and can produce magnificent results. Perhaps they have too many people and interests to satisfy, and so tend to lose the individuality of a house style.

Binding has always been a problem. Apart from the Government Printer and Whitcombe's, there was not, until recently, a case-making machine in the country. Cases were, and still are, made by hand, with the dry comment that there is not so much difference in price. The quality and range of bookcloth is threadbare – import restrictions again impose shoddy on us. Besides those firms already named, we expect to get, and do get, excellent binding from F. Cartwright and Son Ltd., Christchurch, and L. D. Hanratty Ltd., Lower Hutt.

Hurry is the enemy of typography and good printing. It is a condition of industrialism, and printing today is more industry than craft. The other enemy is ignorance. That printers of all people should be so unlettered is cause for amazement. In New Zealand they have lost practically all the design sections of the trade to advertising agents. The inevitable advent of educated design-typographers will further reduce them to the status of mechanical troglodytes.

by Dennis James Matthews Glover, D.S.C., B.A., Author and Typographer, Wellington.