Figures in history: the sculpture of Tony Stones, Vincent O’Sullivan

Visitors who arrive at Mangere airport see their first piece of New Zealand sculpture as they leave the main terminal building: the eight-foot-high bronze figure of a young lean Batten as she stretches on tip-toe, waving to the crowd, reaching for the sky. The figure is elegant and poised, catching her moment of achieved ambition.

The sculptor Tony Stones has made something of a speciality of works that define figures in history, their psychological stance as much as their visual impact. There is his massively confident Freyberg, commanding a good deal more than simply Auckland pedestrians as he stands, feet firmly planted, fists deep in his overcoat pockets, on the slope above High Street; or Peter Fraser, tilting into Wellington winds as well as the future of his country, outside the old Parliament buildings in Wellington. Arguably the finest public statue in the country, Stone’s Fraser is an ordinary civil servant carrying his raincoat and briefcase as he steps into history, yet a figure of extraordinary personal power. He moves in vivid contrast to the static pomposity of Keith Holyoake’s statue (not by Stones) a few hundred yards away in Molesworth Street, decked out in his Order of the Garter, holding a ceremonial mere. The difference in styles of leadership, and the decades in which they led, could hardly be better put than by these two abiding presences.

Stones has always had the knack of catching personality. His busts of Eric McCormick, Dan Davin and Ronald Syme are among our best pieces of portraiture. In recent years several Oxford colleges have commissioned him to model the academic greats, from A J Ayer to Isaiah Berlin. It was an inspired choice of someone in high places to bring Stones to work on the life-size figures of Pacific explorers that stand as it were on the rim of the horizon as one enters the New Zealand pavilion in Seville.

Tony Stones came to New Zealand from the north of England as a boy, and returned in his early fifties to chance his arm at surviving as a full-time sculptor in Britain. He has no problem in seeing himself as both New Zealander and Englishman. Most of his work, in fact, relates to this country, most of his talk gets round to it. The Seville commission extended that commitment.

Before they were freighted to Spain the figures stood in his studio a few miles out from Oxford. The doors of a nondescript farmyard barn swing back to the bronze-resin casts of the set he completed at the end of last year, the club of seven who defined the Pacific. They seemed oddly casual standing among the paraphernalia of a workshop, the piled white shrouds of the casings that carried them from clay to their present form. They are meant to be viewed by looking upwards, cut out against the pavilion’s theatrical space. Beyond their display in Seville, they are perhaps best visualised as figures in the landscape, above harbours or on promontories.

In arriving at his version of the great Pacific sailors Stones had little to go on – except with Cook – by way of pictures or portraits. To get to the man as much as the period, Stones read widely and looked closely at the art of each man’s time. It was a matter first of knowing what they came from, what such men believed and envisaged, then of looking his way towards the image that would hold them. De Quiros, who thought of himself as God’s captain, is wrapped in the rigidity of a high-backed cloak, his right hand almost convulsively clutching the cord above his crucifix. Tasman, on the other hand, owes a good deal to Rembrandt – the deep laced collar, the blunt burgher-like figure who has sailed from metaphysics into hard-nosed business. Bougainville is the eighteenth-century scholar-dandy, balancing his long-handled cane, the rational man of Enlightenment portraiture. The Spaniard Mendana spreads his opened palm across his chest, the stance of El Greco’s Portrait of a Gentleman of 1680. Kupe balances a paddle across his shoulders, but the balance, the attitude, Stones took from a photograph in Raymond Firth of young men carrying bananas. And the fingers of the left hand, sloping downwards on the figure’s hip, are angled as Stones believes in a particularly Polynesian way. Look, he says, at the way Maori rugby players stand, when their hands are on their hips, and then look at Pakeha players, how differently their hands are placed, to bear out what he means. And isn’t there a touch of the young Hone Tuwhare in Kupe’s features? Hone was a great old mate, Stone says; don’t let a face like that get away on you.

Already the Admiralty has arranged to purchase a bronze casting of Cook for Greenwich. It would be good to think that Tasman too might find a standing place above Golden Bay, and Cook and Kupe somewhere along the numerous bluffs of the Wellington coastline.

 

Vincent O’Sullivan is a Wellington writer, poet and dramatist.

 

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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