Robert Coupland Harding, as practitioner, historian and critic of printing, has a strong claim to be considered New Zealand's first and most eminent typographer. His father, Thomas Bennick Harding, was himself a printer and bookbinder, and also a painter and glazier, who, with his wife, Jane Coupland, had left Britain for New Zealand on the Bernicia in July 1848. They settled for a time in Wellington, where Robert Coupland (known as Coupland) was born on 19 October 1849.
A year later the family moved to Wanganui. Thomas Harding set up a printing house, and it was here that the young Coupland began to learn his letters, helped by his schoolteacher, the Reverend C. H. S. Nicholls, who was also a printer. He was perhaps stimulated too by his uncle, William James Harding, who settled in Wanganui in 1855 and was to become one of New Zealand's finest early photographers.
On 23 January 1858 a fire destroyed both house and business, and early the following year Thomas Harding took his family to live for a time with his elder brother John, who had a sheep station at Waikari (Putorino), north of Napier. He resumed his own trade in Napier in April 1861. There by chance at an auction the same month, the young Coupland Harding met the missionary William Colenso, and the two became fast friends. It was a fitting conjunction: Colenso had been in effect New Zealand's first printer; his protégé was to become the country's first typographer.
Coupland Harding began his apprenticeship in a small printing house in Napier run by the Yates brothers, his first job being for Charles Thatcher, the itinerant versifier and entertainer. His father bought up the Yateses' business at the end of 1864, and with it the weekly Hawke's Bay Times, which he then transformed into the first daily newspaper on the east coast. Coupland worked on the paper as a compositor and journalist. Thomas Harding continued printing the Hawke's Bay Times until the end of 1872. On 5 November 1873 Coupland restarted it on a larger sheet and carried it on until 31 December 1874, when it was finally discontinued. He then decided to concentrate all his energies and enthusiasm on job printing, in the higher branches of which he found his greatest personal interest.
In the 1860s, while still an apprentice, Harding had begun collecting typefounders' specimens and establishing by correspondence links with the most eminent European and North American printers and founders. Harding's Almanac, of which he printed and published some 11 editions, many in Maori and Danish as well as English, was full of advertisements which he used as a vehicle to display new types and to demonstrate the arts of the jobbing printer. These were his ruling passion. In 1876 he had imported direct from the Johnson foundry of Philadelphia the first parcel of American type brought into New Zealand, and in 1877 the first German type at a time when, even in Britain, the German typefounders and their job material of this period were unknown. At the same time he proved himself a successful designer of borders, one of which – 'The Book Border', produced by the Johnson foundry in 1879 – was rapidly adopted by printers worldwide.
Harding's Almanac received high praise: 'one of the best-printed and best-compiled works of its class in the colony'; 'as a specimen of typography, no book yet printed in New Zealand can be said to have come anything near it'. Of one edition the London Printers' Register wrote that it was 'A model book in point of typography'; another commentator remarked, 'There is a master's hand in it'.
It was in his remarkable typographic journal Typo, however, that Harding's interests found their fullest expression. He began it in 1887, and from title to colophon wrote most issues himself, often composing his articles directly at case, a method which he was said to have used with perfect ease. It received instant praise internationally. In Paris, London and St Louis its judicious ornamentation in headings and initials was noted with pleasure, and the originality and sprightliness of its contents were paid the compliment of frequent reprinting in English and German trade papers.
Design, principles, system and judgement set the standard for the form and contents of Typo. These were the beacons which drew Harding on with an unwavering sense of direction. But his aesthetic sense was always exercised within the firmly defined demands of practical printing. On Typo's third birthday he noted that he had also provided 'a fairly complete record from month to month of the typographical and literary history of our own colony'. He took some credit for the journal's role in establishing the Master Printers' Associations in the main centres in 1889–90, and the New Zealand Institute of Journalists in 1891. He was among the first to press for a national copyright deposit for New Zealand publications, and was also among the first to argue in detail the merits of standard systems of measurement in typefounding and paper-making.
Harding was also one of the very few independent public critics of new typefaces, reviewing them as they were marketed. The sharpness of his judgement and its influence on the market received its highest compliment when the editors of the Inland Printer in Chicago capitulated to the demands of typefounders and dispensed with his percipient critiques of new designs. Such was the range and precision of his learning as displayed in Typo that a leading English typefounder, writing in the early 1890s, claimed that 'For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand.'
By 1890 Harding's preoccupation with Typo had in effect precluded his more profitable business. In a mood of general disaffection with Napier he decided, disastrously, to shift to Wellington. He went into partnership with Wright and Eyre, but in November 1892 took over the business in his own name. It was not a success. Typo's appearance became intermittent, and ceased altogether with a double issue for January–February 1897. His Wellington enterprise came at last to its sad end with the sale of his business and the dispersal of his remarkable collection of types, and for the remainder of his working life he was employed as a journalist and editor on Wellington's Evening Post.
Coupland Harding died in Wellington on 16 December 1916, survived by his wife, Sophia Sarah Blackmore, whom he had married at Nelson on 15 March 1883, and two daughters and two sons. For all the recognition his achievements received internationally, and his extensive correspondence, he had lived a curiously private life and was something of a melancholic. He was burdened by family anxieties, suffered misfortune in business and had to endure persistent illness. But his were visions ahead of his time, and his aesthetic sensibility and intelligence had a moral dimension which kept him proud in the confidence and independence of his judgement and in his sense of social purpose. It is further testimony to his insight that on the very threshold of the twentieth century he could see printing and typography 'threatened by the camera, the etching fluid, and by the (at present) harmless and inoffensive "typewriter", in the keyboard of which lies the germ of something much greater in the future.'