Robert Coupland Harding — a man you should know, Part I

6 years ago by

Written by Kelly Gilchrist

A few words to set forth the objects and scope of our publication will not be out of place in our first number. It is our design to issue a journal representative of the printing, publishing, bookselling, stationery, and kindred interests, and to provide a recognized channel of communication between those engaged in these industries. The contents of the present issue will give a general idea of the field we intend to occupy; but in future numbers, as our exchanges and correspondence come in, certain departments will be more fully developed.

Robert Coupland Harding, arguably New Zealand’s first typographer, began the typographic journal appropriately titled, Typo, in his printing premises on Hastings Street in Napier in 1887.


The eight to twelve-page journal would arrive folded in half on your door step at the end of every month and once the twelfth issue arrived (and you had received the index for the year) you were then encouraged to send all the sections to the local binder to create the completed volume. The journal thrived in its first five years, where it travelled and was circulated nationally and internationally. Although, in the years that followed 1891, Typo, would become an unprofitable obsession. Oddly, the man who would change the New Zealand print industry left behind very little legacy.

Harding was born in Wellington, in 1849, the son of a printer and bookbinder. The family established a printing business in Wanganui in 1850. Eight years later a fire destroyed the family home and business. Harding Senior moved his family across the country to Napier. At a book auction in Napier, Robert Harding would meet arguably New Zealand’s first printer, William Colenso, a friendship that would last for the next thirty-eight years. As a young apprentice Harding began to collect his extensive personal collection of typographical journals and books. He also imported type from all over the world and had a strong relationship with the Johnson Foundry in Philadelphia.

Harding’s first individual project was his collection of eleven local directories titled, Harding’s Almanac [1880-1891]. The Almanac was a book of reference providing the East Coast with a local guide.


The London-based Printing Times and Lithographer journal remarked:

It is altogether unlike the ordinary productions of colonial printing offices. The advertisements are displayed in a highly creditable manner, and … bear testimony to the fact that Mr. R.C. Harding, of Hastings-Street, Napier, is a lover of his art, and that his printing office is one that contains an exceptionally good store of jobbing types, ornamental borders, &c.; and what is more, that his workmen know how to use both to advantage.

The pages of Harding’s Almanac bear examples of the hand of a master “artistic printer”, later developed in the Typo.

In an interview earlier this year, Dr. Sydney Shep of Victoria University’s Wai-te-ata Press confirms that Harding was indeed a one-man band. He wrote Typo while composing it in metal type and distributed the journal nationally and internationally. His network expanded across a significant amount of countries, including England, France, Germany, Denmark, America, Japan, Russia and a few countries in South America. Harding would send Typo to other printing businesses in these countries and in return he would receive their trade journals. Harding often reprinted articles from these journals within Typo. The columns of Typo include many short items containing a wealth of information ranging from domestic and international news to fires that destroyed local printing premises [perhaps he reported these as a reaction to what happened to his childhood home and family’s printing business] machinery and even his neighbour’s stories.

After reading the seventy-two issues in eleven volumes, I fell in love, this man has a way with words. And who would have known. I couldn’t help but giggle, like a school girl, at his tone while he expresses his disgust for Aucklanders:

… Prof. Tucker contributes a chapter on « The Vanished Wonderland. » Like a true Aucklander, he ignores all the rest of the colony. « There are two routes to Ohinemutu, » he says, and proceeds to describe the two Auckland lines, giving no hint of the equally good if not better route from the south …  It appears to be only the Aucklanders who are afflicted with that species of myopia which prevents them seeing anything beyond their own provincial boundaries. [Typo, Volume 2, Issue 13, 1888, p. 5]

Harding leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination, he is almost cruel with his comments and judgements. And keep in mind these comments would be read by the very designers whose he was being critical of.

Under the reoccurring article; ‘Design In Typography’, Harding creates the real design magic. From the outset, Harding integrates pieces of design, typography and layouts used in the print industry. The ‘artistic printer’ composes a visually beautiful piece. Predominantly, discussing the ornamental design of the period, Harding states many rules or issues that are still relevant today. A man ahead of his time, Harding held strong views on what he saw as weaknesses in the print industry. He wasn’t afraid to lay down guidelines for improvement:

We have never yet met with the compositor who did think he knew exactly how to set about a fancy job; when in fact, the special skill required is one of the rarest qualities to be found in the trade. Simplicity, unity of design, and harmony of effects—essential points of all good work—are not recognized by the average workman.

Harding dedicates two sections of Typo to the typographical journals he has received under ‘Our Exchanges’ and the recent releases of specimens nationally and internationally in ‘Recent Specimens’. Other reoccurring articles include ‘Literature’, ‘Our Correspondents’, ‘Trade Dispatches’ and the ending ‘Obituary’. No part of Typo will disappoint. A recommended read for anyone with even the remotest interest in design.



For now, this is the end of the introduction to Harding’s story. I intend to continue the story of Harding and Typo in additional articles. But if you would like more information on Typo feel free to contact me with any questions via Or you can find the digitalised pages of Typo on Victoria University NZETC by clicking here.

Kelly Gilchrist is a graphic designer (recently turned writer) with a fondness for the ‘old’. This drives her personal interest in history, typography, and books. Better with the handmade, Kelly’s expensive pastimes include book binding, letterpress printing, analogue photography and paper engineering. She is currently studying an Honours degree at AUT University and is also part of the Photography Collections team at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, in order to digitalise the entire museum collection.








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