Clifton Firth. Portraits of A.R.D. Fairburn (ca 1945) and Allen Curnow (11 September 1946)

Clifton Firth. Portraits of A.R.D. Fairburn and Allen Curnow. Clifton Firth. Portraits of A.R.D. Fairburn (ca 1945) and Allen Curnow (11 September 1946)

Although principally remembered as a photographer, Reginald Clifton Firth (1904-1980) also painted and wrote poetry. His literary interests were strengthened by a number of key friendships. During the years that he was a pupil at King's College Auckland, one of his closest friends was Merton Hodge, who later became an internationally renowned playwright. Through Hodge, he was introduced in 1926 to the poet R.A.K. Mason (1905-1971), who soon took him to meet fellow bard A.R.D. Fairburn (1904-1957). In the early 1930s, Mason, Fairburn and Firth were a near-inseparable trio, dubbed ‘the three Rs’ because of the Christian names by which they were usually known: Ron, Rex (nobody called him Arthur) and Reg.

Although in later years Fairburn and Firth sometimes disagreed over politics, they remained lifelong friends. When the photograph shown here was taken at Firth's Queen Street studio in the mid-1940s, Fairburn worked as a scriptwriter for the Auckland radio station 1ZB. Recognised as one of the country's most gifted poets, with an output ranging from tender lyrics to brilliant satires, he published his Collected Poems in 1943.

By the 1940s, Firth was acquainted with many of New Zealand's other leading writers. Among those he photographed were Ngaio Marsh, Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Keith Sinclair, David Ballantyne, James K. Baxter, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow. A good portrait, he said, ‘should present several aspects of a person's psychological make up simultaneously’.

Firth probably first encountered Curnow (1911-2001) about 1932, when both were contributors to Phoenix, a literary magazine edited by Mason. Firth's portrait captures Curnow during a particularly busy and productive period in a writing career that spanned six decades. Having published three much-admired volumes of poetry during the war years - Not in Narrow Seas (1939), Island Time (1941) and Sailing or Drowning (1943) - he had just completed another, Jack Without Magic. Literary circles were still abuzz, too, with discussion of his landmark 1945 anthology Book of New Zealand Verse and its incisive forty-page critical introduction. He was also contributing a weekly column of satirical verse to the Christchurch Press under the pseudonym Whim-Wham. He earned an income by working as a sub-editor for that newspaper.

Firth gave a large collection of his prints and negatives to the Library after he retired from his photographic studio in 1974.


Related resources: further information on Clifton Firth


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