Māori and British traditions
Traditionally, wood, stone and bone carving were the main media used by Māori to make three-dimensional art. European colonists acquired Māori carvings for museum and private collections, but the impact of Māori carving on mainstream sculpture in New Zealand was for a long time limited. Although some were inspired by Māori subjects, the first Pākehā sculptors followed their own, largely British, sculptural traditions. As late as 1965 curator Peter Tomory claimed ‘our contemporary sculptors show no trace of Maori art in their work’.1
A masterpiece of Victorian realism
So lifelike is the statue of John Robert Godley that his friends claimed they would have recognised the likeness from the legs alone. Godley’s vivid yet dignified presence makes him look, one commentator enthused, ‘ready to move and speak’.2
The first public monument
Little significant sculpture was produced in New Zealand before the end of the 19th century. New Zealand’s first public monument, honouring the recently deceased Canterbury provincial coloniser John Robert Godley, was commissioned from the London sculptor Thomas Woolner and was shipped over to Christchurch. It was unveiled in 1867.
Statues of Queen Victoria
Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin each boast memorials to Queen Victoria signifying both civic and imperial pride. They date from the very late 19th century and early 20th century. Like the Godley statue, they were commissioned from prominent sculptors working in Britain.
The Christchurch statue of Queen Victoria was based on sketches by Charles Kidson, who taught modelling and woodwork at the Canterbury College School of Art. Kidson later carved a marble statue in Ashburton of runholder John Grigg (1905). The agriculturally themed reliefs on the pedestal relate the memorial to its regional context.
Kidson’s successor at the Canterbury School of Art, Frederick Gurnsey, established himself as New Zealand’s most important carver of religious sculpture in a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century. His works combine Gothic spiritual qualities with a keen eye for indigenous flora and fauna.