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Kerry Bolton on A. R. D. Fairburn as an Artist of the Right

[1]3,213 words

Concerning Dr. Kerry Bolton’s claim [2] that A. R. D. Fairburn is “an artist of the right”: This is a mistaken claim but one that is easy to make if some of Fairburn’s words are treated in isolation and de-contextualised.

It must first be said the ‘left’ and ‘right’ are difficult to disentangle and have, in the recent decades of neo-Liberalism, become even more confused. They are, however, different. Let’s not settle for the flabby “everything is the same as everything else” in assessing recent politics and culture; nor in assessing the present. Also, those of us who are ‘left’ (and I count myself among them) must face the fact their side of the political spectrum has had its share of moral collapses in the past hundred years, and has been responsible in the extremes of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Pol Pot’s Cambodia for terrible crimes – every bit as bad as those committed in the name of the extreme right in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. Stalin’s Terror and Hitler’s Final Solution may have differed in their origins and detail, but they represented the same evil: unlimited power centred in the state apparatus, running amok under the direction of paranoid and brutal megalomaniacs. At these extremes, ‘left’ and ‘right’ have very similar human outcomes.

However ‘left’ and ‘right’ have different ideological roots, and in our present social democracies, struggling to maintain civil societies, such differences do issue in different social policies. Fairburn is closer to the ideological roots of the ‘left’ than the ‘right’. This is clear in most of his speaking as a social thinker and sometime political activist; as a proselytiser for art education and thinker on art history, and as a poet/satirist. It is also clear from the lived detail of his life. Though capable of a statement that could sound patriarchal, authoritarian and intolerant to our twenty-first century ears, he had basically a ‘live and let live’ approach to existence. In him was no ambition to control others; but he did claim the right to criticise their opinions, which he did effectively and, on occasion, hurtfully.

Dr. Bolton has, by rigorously selective quotation from various sources, including my 1984 biography of Fairburn, created an impression for a reader unaware of context or detail that Fairburn was more truly ‘right’ than ‘left’. He has produced a reductionist view of a complex man, which verges on caricature. His carefully constructed essay has a sub-text too: that Fairburn was a fascist sympathiser.

Let’s start with fascism and its usual corollary, anti-semitism. Fascism is, in its very essence, of the state. The fasces, the bundle of rods with the protruding axe, is the symbol of this and was, in Mussolini’s Italy, a formal consecration of absolute state power. Throughout Fairburn’s life, the exercise of such power was anathema. In the period 1930–32 he fell out with his closest friend, the poet R. A. K. Mason, who in 1933 would become, temporarily, a member of the Communist Party. Fairburn was at this time living in England, and was arguing politics by correspondence also with another convinced communist, the Auckland photographer Clifton Firth. The intricacy of the argument was considerable, and can be followed through the sixth chapter of my biography. Fairburn, at one point, argued for a fascist coup in New Zealand, but with the aim of establishing, not so much a fascist state, as an anarchist paradise.  This was all very rash and foolish, and was his one serious rush of blood to the head in the matter of being prepared to use violence to bring about what he believed would be a state of wider freedoms. He never endorsed such an idea publicly and quickly abandoned what was essentially a rhetorical position, expressed in a moment of anger to wound his communist friends. However, to Firth he admitted that Communism was probably the most effective way for marginalised workers to defend their rights[1] and he was firmly on the side of the rioters in Auckland. In a letter to another friend, Guy Mountain (May 1932) he exclaims:

. . .  the thought of a plate-glassless Queen Street almost gives me fresh hope for humanity. . . . Gad sir, I’m proud of being a New Zealander! . . .  Seriously, though, this business should shake people up out there – the Government especially – and remind them that there is such a thing as the social contract.[2]

His arguments concerning an enthusiasm for Douglas Credit, and how such ideas connected with anarchism, communism and fascism were convoluted, and at one time led him to castigate Clifton Firth for totalitarian leanings:

You have on the one hand Communism. On the other hand, Hitlerism. You, if you were in Germany today, would be a Hitlerite. You would, in England, be a Mosleyite, I fear.[3]

In 1942, ten years after this correspondence (which did not end his friendship with either Firth or Mason) he spelled out clearly his view of state power:

The State in its present form is a great evil: it is (mark you) not only a concentration of power – which is undesirable in itself when it is so complete – but a falsification of the powers it is composed of – the powers of individuals. Yet individuals have to do the fighting and killing – Private Smith, who never asked for war, blowing the guts out of Private Tajo, whose motives are equally irrelevant to the conflict …. But I do think there’s a terrible necessity to assert the claims of the individual against the rival totalitarian and authoritarian systems that are tearing the planet apart – Catholicism, Communism, Naziism and their derivatives. I think the actual need for anarchism – or rather for anarchist expression – is greater than the need to assert the claims for order.[4]

It’s worth noting too that in the early ‘thirties the full malevolence of twentieth-century totalitarianism of either the Stalinist or Hitlerian ilk was, for most citizens, beyond imagining. Young men bandied around words such as ‘fascism’ much more casually than they did after 1945. Fairburn’s statement, made in the middle of the war in 1942, is altogether more thoughtful and humane than might have been the case in 1932. It expresses a position he would live with for the rest of his life.

He returned to New Zealand and campaigned actively for the election of the 1935 Labour Government, the nearest thing to a truly ‘left’ wing administration the country has ever had; and one that soon took on some of the financial ideas of Douglas Credit. Fairburn did not believe naively in the new dispensation, however. He saw its flaws pretty clearly and was kept informed of them by his friend Harold Innes, who was working as an adviser to the Minister of Finance, Walter Nash.

Did he read ‘fascist’ literatures as Dr. Bolton maintains? This claim ignores the fact that he read across the whole political spectrum and had a considerable respect for Marx’s writing, for Winwood Reade, for the classic Christian Liberalism of Lord Acton, for the visionary anarchism of Nicolai Berdyaev. Mr Bolton’s view that D. H. Lawrence, Spengler and Nietzsche, all of whom were read by Fairburn, were fascists, is at best one-eyed, at worst untenable. They too were complex figures, writing mainly before the reality of European fascism was apparent. Spengler’s Decline of the West for instance was principally a study of the morphology of cultures. Though saturated with pessimism and an acceptance of the inevitably of violence in the transitions of history, it is very far from being a fascist tract, nor could most of Nietzsche and most of Lawrence be characterised in this way. The fact that the interwar generation read these authors widely does not prove that either their work or their readers were fascists. In most cases the contrary was true. These complex questions are discussed in my biography and are not susceptible to sound-byte sloganising. Suffice it to say that Fairburn was very far from fascism or totalitarian practice of any kind.

If Dr. Bolton had read the biography properly, he would have noted the extent of Fairburn’s acquaintanceship with Jewish people. He admired the modernist sculptor, Jacob Epstein, met him and in 1933 published in the Auckland Star his ‘Jacob Epstein, sculptor and draughtsman. The artist at home.’[5] He admired hugely and was friend to the exiled German Jewish refugee poet, Karl Wolfskehl, resident in Auckland through the Second World War, and he was friend and champion of the playing of the pianist Lili Kraus. One could go on, but let the man speak for himself.

In the preface of the 1952 edition of Strange Rendezvous Fairburn writes, well aware of the way in which the words Jew and Jewish had been carelessly used in the days of his youth. The opening of the gates of Belsen and Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War, he knew, had made any thoughtless use of such language beyond the pale:

The times being what they are, I think it worth remarking that the reference to Jews, in the poem “Landscape with Figures” [published by him in 1935] is not general but highly specific; and that I should hate to be suspected of that form of spiritual leprosy known as anti-semitism.[6]

We might see this as an early instance of an awareness that has now become general – that the names of races and ethnicities have to be used with care, with respect and without malice. This kind of acceptance of the need for change towards a more responsible use of such words is not a characteristic of the ‘right’, but of the liberal ‘left’. The ‘right’ lags behind in such matters.

Were Fairburn of the ‘right’, chances are he would be unsympathetic to Maori and Maori issues. Yet Dr. Bolton himself quotes a letter by Fairburn that indicates the contrary. It shows him aware of the need among Maori for a genuinely autonomous development of their own culture.[7]

In 1937 Fairburn and R. A. K. Mason were both elected members of the Orakei Village Protection Committee (later called the Association of the Friends of Orakei when it combined with the Auckland Clergy Association), involved in an early pakeha defence of Maori land rights in Auckland. The people of the Orakei village were facing eviction from their homes by the government and the Auckland City Council and plans were afoot to use the land as an accessway to a state housing scheme. It is of interest that the very active and impassioned secretary was Robin Hyde – it seems Fairburn was capable of co-operating both with his communist friend Mason and with someone who, according to some, should have been a bugbear to him: a woman poet. In this issue he and the rest of the committee and were well to the left of the Acting Minister of Maori Affairs in the Labour Government, Frank Langstone, who nearly succeeded in pursuing the eviction. Here the ‘left’ won a small victory, insofar as the government was forced to reconsider their programme and delay any action.[8]

The connection with Robin Hyde brings us to another claim by Dr. Bolton: that Fairburn was of the ‘right’ insofar as he was anti-feminist. Certainly there is some substance in the idea that he seemed hostile to the emerging feminism of the twentieth century. This has to be measured carefully against his relations in the real world with women and with their artistic and intellectual aspirations. These are often far from the statements made by him in The Woman Problem, an essay that is taken to be representative of his attitudes. For reasons unknown he did not publish The Woman Problem. It would certainly be naïve to see the essay as the whole story.

These matters I have treated in the 1984 biography, and added new material in a thesis version of the book placed in the Library of the University of Auckland in 2003. That thesis, “Fingers round the Earth”, is available to readers for research purposes, though not for wholesale copying.[9] Fairburn had both intellectual and sexual relations with women that are rich, contradictory and complex. Had he been a one-dimensional misogynist of the conventional ‘right’ he would not have given the passionate support he did to Frances Hodgkins and her art in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. Nor would he have respected Jane Mander as a writer to the extent that he did. His three daughters certainly would not have been raised and educated as liberally as they were, and would have been unlikely to become the accomplished, professional and independent women they have. He would have been incapable of the twenty-seven year relationship with his wife Jocelyn, an important aspect of which was their co-operative development of ecological ideas. This is discussed in the biography and detailed in an essay by me, published in 2008 in my collection The Expressive Forest: Essays on the Arts and Ecology in Oceania.[10] The essay in question is “Two New Zealanders and the Poetics of Agriculture”. In this matter of eco-philosophy the marriage was a relationship of equals, Fairburn allowing himself to be advised and influenced by his wife.

Along with many men of his generation he was a domestic incompetent, but entirely lacked the sometimes complementary feature of being a domestic bully or tyrant. Quite the contrary. He was dreamy, distracted, absent-minded, enthused by the education of his children, uninterested in disciplining anyone and, at times, very funny. There was no violence against women or children in this household. A family friend, Elspeth Hitchings, once introduced him, tongue in cheek, as ‘Jocelyn’s fifth and most difficult child’.[11]

The ecological views that emerged from this were not ‘right’ in orientation, nor were they specifically ‘left’. Rather, they were of the future. Neither side of the political spectrum had grasped the import of ecological ideas by the time Fairburn died in 1957. The focus of such ideas was on long term ecological sustainability based on an organic system of agriculture. Jocelyn and Rex Fairburn were really forerunners for some of the agricultural policies of the modern Greens. His lecture of 1944, given to the Fabian Society, “The Land Our Life”[12], speaks in a matter of fact way about agriculture as a way of life, as a craft, and as an environmentally sensitive way of producing food. These ideas are not anti-urban and do not have associations with the Nazis’ ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric. They are concerned with the establishment of a rural/ urban balance. Mr Bolton, when he tries to catch Fairburn in the net of a parochial, individualistic ruralism, forgets he is writing of the man who, in 1949, wrote the fine poem “To a Friend in the Wilderness”. This is an intelligent, lyrical debate between a countryman and townsman. Neither is demonised or favoured. Fairburn knew by this time that he was a townsman; though he loved to spend time in the country, particularly in Northland’s coastal landscapes. He had, in fact, discovered his townsman preference years before in Wiltshire. Though living there in the countryside and writing home about his wish to become a peasant; though extolling the virtues of a truly peasant way of life, he had no illusions about the parochialism, bigotry and limitations of life in that environment. See his article “The English Village. Depression and beauty. Undercurrent of despair”, published in the Auckland Star, 12 December 1931. He was not, as Dr. Bolton seems to believe, a deeply conservative ‘back-to-earther’ – not even a particularly good gardener. But he was interested in maintaining the soil’s fertility and perceived the necessity of that as sharply as it is perceived now. In fact, Fairburn lived rurally for only one year, 1931–32, in England. On his return to New Zealand in 1932, he lived in Auckland. With the exception of an abortive attempt to land a teaching job in Fiji in 1939, he showed no serious sign of leaving the city.[13]

Let’s have no more one-dimensional portrayals of Fairburn. Claiming him for the ‘right’ is tendentious and produces a caricature well removed from reality. By the same token, let’s not canonise him. He is not a saint of the ‘left’ and would have detested being considered one. He was cut, as we all are, from the ‘crooked timber of humanity’. Capable of a wonderful geniality, he could also be prejudiced, foolish and subject to outbursts of hate. The sum of his life certainly does not add up to his being on the ‘right’. Nor does it place him in any simple way with the mainstream ‘left’. But the life as actually lived, and nearly all the words, spoken and written, are not those of an individual whom one could imagine supporting the neo-liberal sophistries of a Margaret Thatcher or a Roger Douglas. Nor would he have thought much of the right-wing caperings of the Republican ‘tea-party’ in today’s USA. He poured scorn on the equivalent of his day, the National government of Sidney Holland when it attempted to curb freedom of speech in New Zealand during the 1951 dock strike.[14]

As citizens of a flawed social democracy it is best that we see our gifted compatriots the way they are. To do so involves looking carefully at the record, not just selecting the bits of it that might enable them to be fitted with labels that are inaccurate, untruthful and even mischievous.


Bolton, Kerry,  “Rex Fairburn,” www.counter-currents.com/2012/02/rex-fairburn-2/ [2]

Edmond, Lauris, The Letters of A. R. D. Fairburn. Oxford University Press, Auckland 1981

Challis, Derek & Gloria Rawlinson, The Book of Iris, A Life of Robin Hyde. Auckland University Press, Auckland 2002

Fairburn, A. R. D., Strange Rendezvous; Poems 1929–1941 with Additions. Caxton Press, Christchurch 1952

Johnson, Olive, A.R.D. Fairburn 1904–1957, A Bibliography of his Published Work. University of Auckland Monograph Series No 3, 1958

Trussell, Denys John, Fairburn. Auckland Oxford University Press, Auckland 1984

Trussell, Denys John, Fingers Round the Earth, a Biography of A. R. D. Fairburn (1904–1957). University of Auckland thesis, 2003.

Trussell, Denys John, The Expressive Forest, Essays on the Arts and Ecology in Oceania, Brick Row Publishing, Auckland, California, 2008


1. Fairburn to Clifton Firth, 18 May 1932 (see p. 124, Trussell biography).

2. Fairburn to Guy Mountain, 17 May 1932 (see p. 117, Trussell biography).

3. Fairburn to Clifton Firth, 23 December 1931 (see p. 230, Fingers Round the Earth, a Biography of A. R. D. Fairburn (1904–57), University of Auckland thesis 2003).

4. Fairburn to E.P. Dawson, 11 May 1942 (see p. 184, Trussell biography, 1984).

5. Fairburn, “Jacob Epstein. Sculptor and draughtsman. The artist at home.” Auckland Star, 21 January 1933, Magazine Section p.1.

6. Fairburn, prefatory note to Strange Rendezvous; Poems 1929–41 with additions, Caxton Press, Christchurch 1952.

7. Fairburn to NZ Herald, 4 February 1955 (see pp. 225–26, The Letters of A. R. D. Fairburn ed. Lauris Edmond, Oxford University Press, 1981).

8. This account of the Orakei Village Protection Committee is based on pp. 438 of The Book of Iris, A Biography of Robin Hyde, by Derek Challis & Gloria Rawlinson.

9. Trussell, Denys John, Fingers Round the Earth, a Biography of A.R.D. Fairburn (1904–57), University of Auckland Ph.D. thesis, 2003.

10. Trussell, Denys John, The Expressive Forest, Essays on the Arts and Ecology in Oceania, Brick Row Publishing 2008 (pp. 42–61 for the piece on the Fairburns).

11. Dinah Holman, in conversation with D. Trussell, 29 Feb. 2012.

12. Fairburn, “The Land Our Life”, transcript of lecture given to the Auckland Fabian Society, 1944. Copies of transcript held by Fairburn’s Literary Executors and by Denys Trussell.

13. Trussell biography, p. 175.

14. Fairburn, comment in Landfall V, 3, September 1951, p. 216–20.