Story: Bensemann, Leo Vernon

Page 1 - Biography

Bensemann, Leo Vernon

1912–1986

Artist, printer, typographer, publisher, editor

This biography was written by Peter Simpson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Leo Vernon Bensemann was born in Takaka, Golden Bay, on 1 May 1912, the son of Vernon Victor Bensemann, a blacksmith, and his wife, Ruby Arnold. He was the great-grandchild of German immigrants who had settled in the Moutere hills near Nelson in the 1840s. By 1922 his family had moved to Nelson. As a pupil at Nelson College from 1925 to 1930 he received some instruction in art from Hugh Scott, a local artist. He was also in the cricket First XI in 1929 and 1930, and was a competent rugby player.

In 1931 he went to Christchurch with his lifelong friend Lawrence Baigent. Bensemann eventually got work as a commercial artist with the printing firm H. W. Bullivant and Company. He took night classes at Canterbury College School of Art, but was largely self-taught. A keen amateur musician, he also taught himself to play the piano and the classical guitar. He had learnt to speak German from his grandmother and had a great love of German literature, art and music.

In 1933 he met the poet and printer Denis Glover, and that year contributed artwork to Oriflamme, the first publication of the Caxton Club, which became the Caxton Press. He also contributed a frontispiece in 1935 to the early Caxton publication Another Argo, comprising poems by Allen Curnow, A. R. D. Fairburn and Glover. Bensemann became known at this time for his bookplate drawings, executed in an idiosyncratic and weird manner, and influenced in part by Aubrey Beardsley. In 1937 he was invited by Glover to join the Caxton Press as a partner. At the time he was assisting with the printing by Caxton of his Fantastica: thirteen drawings, a sequence illustrating a heterogeneous group of literary texts ranging from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to stories by the Brothers Grimm.

Bensemann's involvement with the Caxton Press continued unbroken for 40 years. A second book of Leo Bensemann's work, a miscellany of drawings, engravings, calligraphy and typography, was published in 1952, and he contributed to many other Caxton publications as designer, typographer, illustrator and printer. Among the Caxton books that included his illustrations were Curnow's Not in narrow seas (1939), Giovanni Boccaccio's Nastagio and the obdurate lady (1940), the Grimm brothers' Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet (1941), and Coleridge's Rime of the ancient mariner (1952).

In 1938 he joined The Group, a collection of artists who challenged the conservative art establishment. His membership was proposed by Rita Angus, who became a close friend. The studio apartment he shared with Baigent at 97 Cambridge Terrace from 1938 to 1943 became The Group's unofficial headquarters. Bensemann also designed and printed its annual catalogues from 1940 until it disbanded in 1977. Apart from Caxton publications, The Group was the main outlet for his drawings, engravings and paintings; he exhibited in all but four of its exhibitions between 1940 and 1977, showing a total of 127 works.

On 22 November 1943 in Christchurch Bensemann married Elsie Mary Barrett, a former art student. He had by this stage become a conscientious objector. In September 1941 he and Lincoln Efford had established the Canterbury branch of the Fellowship of Conscientious Objectors, and throughout the Second World War Bensemann expected to be imprisoned for his pacifist beliefs.

From 1945 to 1951 Bensemann's work was regularly reproduced in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand. He was also closely involved, from its outset in 1947, with the literary quarterly Landfall, and was later named by the first editor, Charles Brasch, as one of four people without whom the journal 'would never have existed, or if started could not have continued'. Bensemann himself became editor between 1972 and 1975. He also founded and co-edited, with Barbara Brooke, Ascent, a journal of the visual arts of which five issues were published between 1967 and 1969.

As a painter Bensemann was notable both for his portraits, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, and, after 1960, for landscapes. Among the strongest influences on his work were the German painters Cranach, Holbein and Dürer, and the Japanese woodcut artists Hiroshige and Hokusai. In his graphic work he exploited the fantastic side of his artistic temperament, taking inspiration from a wide range of literary sources for his subject-matter. His portraits, on the other hand, both in pencil and oils, were often strikingly realistic and exhibited meticulous craftsmanship. He frequently depicted his subjects against landscape backgrounds, as in 'Portrait of Albion Wright' (1947). He executed many self-portraits and his other subjects were often family members or close friends and colleagues. From 1938 to 1943 he and Rita Angus often drew and painted each other or worked on the same subjects.

In his early work Bensemann eschewed the regional realism favoured by many artists of The Group, but later, regional imagery became more prominent, especially after 1960. His landscapes included locations in Central Otago, the West Coast, Canterbury and Golden Bay, where he began holidaying regularly after 1965. He was particularly drawn to the precipitous emerald-green hills and limestone rock outcrops of the Takaka region.

In later life he held several successful solo shows in Akaroa (1972, a retrospective), Christchurch (1979, 1981) and Wellington (1983). Most of his work is held in family and private collections, but he is represented in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch. Bensemann travelled to Europe in 1970 and 1979, making contact with his German relations. Before his retirement from the Caxton Press in 1978 he established the private Huntsbury Press at his Christchurch home. In 1985 he was made an OBE for his services to the arts. He continued painting until his death in Christchurch on 2 January 1986. He was survived by his wife and four children.

Leo Bensemann was a central if retiring figure in the artistic life of Christchurch, and New Zealand, for 50 years, the backbone of such vital institutions as The Group and the Caxton Press. He was the close friend and confidant of many leading artists and writers, and was himself a painter and graphic artist of considerable if under-recognised achievement.