Charles Brasch and the Landfall connection

From his earliest days as a university student in Christchurch, Douglas MacDiarmid fostered a wide circle of influential older friends he kept in touch with throughout their lives.

None more so than New Zealand poet and publishing legend Charles Brasch, who was always piercingly honest in his appraisal of Douglas’ paintings and poetry.

They became acquainted through mutual friends including composer Douglas Lilburn and other members of Brasch’s wealthy family, some years before they actually met. These cousins, Eunoe Thompson and Elespie Prior included, closely followed music and art happenings in New Zealand and kept Charles updated with all the news during the years he lived and worked in England.

The late great Charles Orwell Brasch, New Zealand poet, literary editor, art patron. Photograph: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Margaret Scott Collection Reference 1/2-049005-F.

Their friendship was largely based on correspondence. They widely discussed trends in literature and art, world affairs, travel destinations and the activities of friends, as well as sharing pieces of poetry. By the time Brasch returned permanently to New Zealand, Douglas was living abroad so they only saw one another when they happened to find themselves in the same country or New Zealand city. Apart from these letters, there are periodic mentions in their personal journals.

When Brasch founded ‘Landfall’ literary journal in 1947, MacDiarmid was one of the up-and-coming painters he sought to profile. He asked Douglas to write an account of his first commercial show at Helen Hitchings’ gallery in Wellington in 1949, but turned it down apologetically: “May I be blunt and say it is a bit too general and vague to be very helpful to the person who has not seen the gallery, and not critical enough, in the sense of not ‘placing’ it…”

Four of Douglas’s paintings appeared in the December 1956 issue of ‘Landfall’, after a lively exchange of letters to decide which pictures (in the pre-colour photography era) would be seen to best advantage as black and white images. Rather than being given a few guineas as a contributor’s fee in an era when it was complicated to transfer money between countries, he chose to receive copies of the journal, and later subscribed to it for years. Each new issue was eagerly anticipated for the wealth of reading and stimulus it provided – and the magazine was just the right size to stow in a coat pocket to read on a bus or train.

A few years later in 1962, one of those paintings ‘Haymaking 1955’ was selected by Brasch as the first illustration in ‘Landfall Country’, his ‘best of’ compilation of stories, poems, essays and paintings published between 1947 and 1961.

While touring Europe in 1957, Charles visited Douglas in Paris for the first time in years. Curiously, the occasion served to show that the easy cadence of their correspondence didn’t always translate to communicating face to face. Both men ruminated about it afterwards.

“A week is so little in a turbulent life, & one doesn’t seem able to speak by appointment,” Douglas wrote. “Among the French, things go faster, certainly – but one doesn’t look for your kind of poetry here, or get it. One learns about colour, texture & form – the soul lives somewhere else – or has different needs. However, that maybe, my particular blindness hampers me less while I read you – find any amount of profound beauty & accord.

“…I can’t express myself differently or find terms to say more what I mean. I wonder if the further one explores, the more clear, or blurred, the perception becomes – perhaps “specialised” might be the best qualification – this in connection with the feeling of reality in reading your poems as opposed to the unreality of your visit here. The heat seemed real, but neither of us. I am not one of those capable of living easily on two levels at once – everything outside the studio gets out of focus quickly. I think you may be in some way the same, none of which matters beside the work itself…”

By contrast, the Charles found Douglas “much more real” than his current paintings, which somehow lacked his characteristic vitality, and seemed to have lost their New Zealandness!. But he still bought a painting and was given another.

As well as being a talented poet and literary editor, Charles Brasch was well-known and admired as an art patron. He brought a number of Douglas’ paintings over the years, and was delighted when the painter made a little watercolour titled ‘Landfall’ as a gift from Paris.

Landfall 1948 Watercolour Hocken Collection, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin

This painting hung in Brasch’s editorial office for 20 years and was gifted to the Hocken Collection from his estate.  It was a shared cultural connection, the literary journal having been named after ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, a poem on New Zealand identity written by their mutual friend Allen Curnow, and set to music by Douglas Lilburn.

‘Landfall’ was originally published by Caxton Press in Christchurch, a team Douglas knew well.  New Zealand’s most durable arts magazine, it is now produced by Otago University in Dunedin – custodian of the Hocken Library collection that includes Brasch’s substantial diaries and the largest number of Douglas MacDiarmid works in any public archive.

Douglas’ long relationship with the literary journal came full circle in February 2019 when his biography ‘Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid’ was reviewed in the online edition.

To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018)

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Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid biography
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