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
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. 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.
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… 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
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… 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.
retail price $500.00; optional portfolio of ten prints
 Simpson, Introduction, p. .
accessed 20 January 2006.
 Bensemann. Letter to Les Stapp, November 1939.
 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. .