Story: Lowry, Robert William

Page 1 - Biography

Lowry, Robert William

1912–1963

Printer, publisher, typographer, teacher

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

Robert William Lowry was born at Paeroa on 17 November 1912, the eldest child of Janet (Jessie) Craig Forrest and her Irish husband, Robert William Lowry, a storekeeper, later a farmer and carpenter. In 1926 Bob Lowry was enrolled at Auckland Grammar School, where he was introduced to letterpress printing. In 1931 he progressed to Auckland University College and took his enthusiasm for printing with him. Lowry set up the Auckland University College Students' Association Press and printed the four issues of a literary periodical, the Phoenix (1932–33), and Allen Curnow's book of poems, Valley of decision (1933). However, his involvement in student politics, notably the 1932 freedom of speech controversy, his printing of controversial political material such as Sidney Scott's Douglasism or Communism? (1933), and his financial irregularities with press accounts saw him proscribed by the college authorities in 1934.

In July 1934 Lowry was arrested at a gathering of the Free Speech Council and was placed on probation for two years. But he continued to print. The poet R. A. K. Mason provided him with a press, and from Mason's home he produced R. P. Anschutz's Illustrations and specimens of criticism (1934). Lowry then moved into Kitchener Street and established the Unicorn Press, where he printed Mason's own No new thing (1934), Arthur Sewell's Freedom of speech (1934), and Frederick de la Mare's Academic freedom in New Zealand, 1932–34 (1935). He fell out with Mason, and at about this time worked alongside Ronald Holloway. Important works produced under the Unicorn imprint were Frank Sargeson's Conversation with my uncle (1936), W. D'Arcy Cresswell's Lyttelton Harbour (1936), Sewell's Katherine Mansfield: a critical essay (1936), and Roderick Finlayson's Brown man's burden (1938). In July 1938 Lowry signed over the plant of Unicorn to Holloway in payment for debts he had run up.

In August 1938 Lowry was appointed relieving 'infant mistress' at a primary school at Ngataki, near Ninety Mile Beach. The move was probably prompted by changing circumstances: on 9 April 1936, at Auckland, Lowry had married Irene Ethel Cornes, and in February 1938 their first daughter, Robin, was born. (There were to be three other daughters: Judith, Vanya and Brigid.) In 1939 the family was back in Auckland. That year Lowry printed A. R. D. Fairburn's satire on Michael Joseph Savage, 'The sky is a limpet', the first of his typographical extravaganzas.

Lowry entered Auckland Training College in 1940, where he produced the 1941 volume of Manuka, the college magazine. Late in 1942 he was called up and attached to the Army Education and Welfare Service. He was appointed printing manager of Kiwi News, the newspaper of the New Zealand forces in the Pacific islands, which was printed in Noumea from March 1943. Lowry saw out his war service in New Caledonia and returned to Auckland in July 1944.

Between 1945 and 1947 Lowry taught typography at Seddon Memorial Technical College. He also moonlighted: in January 1945, with borrowed money, he began the Pelorus Press from his home. Productions included Sargeson's Speaking for ourselves (1945) and Fairburn's How to ride a bicycle in seventeen lovely colours (1946). Lowry left teaching in August 1947, and with a rehabilitation loan formed a partnership with Leslie Taylor and Gordon Trigg. The partnership lasted six years and cemented Lowry's reputation as Auckland's leading independent printer. Productions included Greville Texidor's These dark glasses (1949), Hubert Witheford's Shadow of the flame (1950), Ormond Burton's Arthur Liversedge (1951), George Fraser's Ungrateful people (1952) and Cresswell's The forest (1952). The Pelorus Press also printed elegant jobbing assignments, for Auckland University College as well as many local cultural, educational and social groups. In October 1953 Lowry left Pelorus because of business differences with his partners and by July 1954 he had set up the Pilgrim Press.

By June 1959 the Pilgrim Press was in financial difficulties as trade creditors attempted to call in what was owed. In August it was incorporated, with two partners providing new capital, but in February 1961 the company could not meet loan repayments and went into receivership. Pilgrim was Lowry's last established press. Productions included Maurice Duggan's Immanuel's land (1956), Olive Johnson's A. R. D. Fairburn, 1904–1957: a bibliography (1958), Fairburn and Denis Glover's Poetry harbinger (1958), and O. E. Middleton's The stone and other stories (1959).

In June 1961 Lowry moved plant 'into a barn down Airedale St', and under the imprint Hurricane House printed Barry Mitcalfe's Thirty poems. This printery did not prove viable and in June 1962 he took employment with Wakefield Press as their 'resident typographer'. Lowry also worked with independent designers producing exhibition catalogues and material for the architectural congress held at the University of Auckland, and, for a while, was a proofreader for the Auckland Star.

Bob Lowry has occupied an ambivalent place in the history of New Zealand printing. Denis Glover thought that what Lowry 'actually did is not nearly as important as the fact that he existed'. While acknowledging Lowry's typographical genius, Glover believed Lowry would do 'what he thought important, with single-minded purpose, ruthlessly, remorselessly, sometimes erratically and often unpunctually'. To some printers Lowry was a perfectionist; to others his work was marred by errors. He was certainly a catalyst for other printers: Ronald Holloway, Robin Lush, Patrick Dobbie, even Glover himself. Stylistically, Lowry's typographical 'excesses' – such as the works produced for Fairburn – have been singled out for comment, but his classically inspired, symmetrical typography is equally assured. His output was astounding. He was the first to print or publish New Zealand authors such as Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Kendrick Smithyman, Roderick Finlayson, Maurice Duggan and Greville Texidor. More than anyone, he was responsible for Here & Now, published in Auckland between October 1949 and November 1957. Its production occupied a great deal of his energy. He was a printer of literary magazines including Mate (1957–61) and Image (1958–60), and annual volumes of Kiwi and Pedagogue. And he printed innumerable booklets, leaflets, broadsides and ephemeral works.

Lowry's working life was punctuated by financial complications and there was a consistent pattern to almost all of his ventures. He would establish a small printery; colleagues, friends or partners would provide additional capital; there would be difficulties with finances; and Lowry would move, or be moved, on. Lowry was quite aware of this pattern: 'Life is a bastard for the undercapitalised', he wrote to Glover in 1957. Many contemporaries found his business dealings inept; some believed he was 'a crook'.

Equally, Lowry is remembered for his personality and lifestyle. He was dark and handsome, self-confident and opinionated, witty and ebullient, 'intolerant of subordination', fond of 'beer and bawdiness'. To James K. Baxter he personified Auckland's free spirit: 'the country spoke through him like the breath blown through a flute'. He was a marvellous host and raconteur. The parties at the Lowry house on the slopes of One Tree Hill were the social focus for the Auckland intelligentsia during the 1950s. But Lowry's private life was affected by alcoholism and periods of depression. On 6 or 7 December 1963 he committed suicide. He was 51 years old. He was survived by his wife and daughters.