Richard Oliver Gross made a major contribution to public sculpture in New Zealand between the wars. He was born in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, on 10 January 1882 to George Gross, an engine-driver, and his wife, Emma Eliza Lines. After attending Barrow grammar school, he received training as a sculptor, first at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts under Albert Toft, an academic sculptor heavily schooled in the classics, and then in various London studios. In his 20s Gross lived in South Africa as an architectural carver; his experiences made him a lifelong opponent of that country's racial policies. While there he married Ethel Jane Bailey at Pietermaritzburg on 25 July 1912. Two years later they moved to New Zealand and began farming near Helensville, where Gross became a director of the Kaipara Co-op Dairy Company.
Sculpture was, however, Gross's first love and after the war he moved to Newmarket, Auckland, and set up a studio. As communities looked for a way to commemorate the Great War, opportunities arose for public sculptures in war memorials. Gross designed but did not sculpt the statue of a soldier for the Clive war memorial in Hawke's Bay, unveiled in 1921. Gross's first sculpture commission was for the Cambridge memorial, which he completed in 1923. Characteristically, he chose to carve in marble a semi-nude male figure: a realistic portrayal of a shirtless digger with sandbags at his feet and also an expression of the ideal of sacrifice. Other memorial commissions followed, all carried out in association with two Auckland architects, William Gummer and M. K. Draffin, whom Gross had met through their mutual membership of the Quoin Club in Auckland. Working with Gummer, Gross sculpted in bronze an aspiring male figure on the top of the Auckland Grammar School memorial, the lion at the base of the Dunedin cenotaph, and the fountain at the National War Memorial carillon in Wellington. Draffin asked him to carry out the delicate bronze frieze around the Havelock North memorial, the stone frieze on the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and the decorative elements on the Wellington cenotaph including two panels of a call-to-arms relief and the equestrian figure on top, the Will to Peace. After the Second World War Gross added bronze lions to the cenotaph.
Certain features characterised this war memorial work. One was an elegant control of anatomical form. Within the tradition of representational art, Gross's work was perfect in its proportions and always sinuous and smooth in its finish. Second, despite his mastery of realistic anatomy, Gross always conceived of his work as symbolic of abstract ideals. His fondness for lions expressed the imperial connection, while his fascination with naked or semi-naked figures reaching upward conveyed the attempt of mankind to rise out of material confines and grasp after spiritual ideals. The figures of Endeavour on the Auckland Grammar School memorial, Sacrifice on the Cambridge memorial and the Wellington Will to Peace are of this nature.
Although Gross was the first sculptor to build his own bronze foundry, this was only for small casts and in 1929 he travelled to England for 18 months to oversee the casting of the Will to Peace. While there he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. The Wellington cenotaph was unveiled in 1932, and despite the depression Gross continued to attract commissions for public sculptures. There was a bronze figure, The Athlete, for the Domain gates in Auckland, unveiled in 1936, and a marble memorial to the Labour leader Harry Holland, in the Bolton Street cemetery in Wellington, unveiled in 1937. Both these works drew upon Gross's trademark, the nude male body, and both attracted some public criticism: The Athlete because of the male genitalia, which were considered offensive, and the Holland memorial because nudity was considered inappropriate for a Labour leader. Gross explained that the Holland statue symbolised the efforts of man, and Harry Holland in particular, to rise above the primeval slime and reach heights of spiritual achievement.
Later Gross also sculpted three other Auckland memorials: the Davis memorial fountain at Mission Bay, a bronze Maori chief for the One Tree Hill memorial, and a madonna-like figure of love and justice for the memorial to Michael Joseph Savage at Bastion Point. In 1938 he was made a CMG. He was a member of the Mackelvie Trust from 1944 to 1957, and from 1936 to 1945 served as president of the Auckland Society of Arts. From this position he publicly defended the rather traditional work of the society. Trained in classical sculpture, Gross was uncomfortable with the emerging aesthetics of modernism. The pursuit of the ideal remained his artistic aim. He painted water colours and wrote occasional poetry, publishing five slim volumes in the 1950s.
Richard and Ethel Gross had three sons. He died in Auckland on 27 December 1964, survived by his wife and one son. He had been responsible for giving New Zealand sculpture a professional image. His lasting memorials are the beautifully proportioned male figures which remain among New Zealand's finest public sculptures.