Victoria Square, Christchurch
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
26th November 1981
Sec 1221 Town of Christchurch (CT CB29F/301), Canterbury Land District
This statue of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was presented to Christchurch by a bookmaker, Matthew Frank Barnett. It was sculpted by William Thomas Trethewey (1892-1956), a monumental mason by trade, who also sculpted the Citizens War Memorial in Cathedral Square. Born in Christchurch, Trethewey was largely self-taught, although he did study wood carving under Frederick Gurnsey, the noted Christchurch carver, and life modelling for a year in Wellington. He won the commission for the statue of Cook in 1928.
Trethewey carved the statue of Cook from a twelve-tonne block of imported marble. It is an over-lifesize portrait in a heroic pose. The statue was officially unveiled by Lord Bledisloe, the Governor-General, on 10 August 1932. The inscription states: 'James Cook/Captain Royal Navy/Circumnavigator who first hoisted the British flag in New Zealand and explored her seas and coasts/1769-70 1773-4 1777/Oceani Investigator Acerrimus'
Cook made three voyages to New Zealand (in 1769, 1773 and 1776-1777), and was the first European to map the outline of the country. His charts served subsequent navigators for years to come and his voyages are still remembered in the names he gave to many natural features around the coast of New Zealand. To previous generations of Pakeha Cook has been seen as the 'true' founder of New Zealand, the Englishman who discovered the islands and thus made them available for colonisation by the British. As James Belich said, 'Cook was the first of a Pakeha pantheon of deified ancestors'. Such a portrayal of him led to the creation of numerous memorials built in his honour throughout New Zealand. Current opinion about Cook, however, ranges from his continued deification to a view of him as an agent of colonisation.
This statue is significant as an example of Trethewey's work, as one of the many monuments around New Zealand dedicated to Cook and as one of the landmarks of Victoria Square.
William Trethewey (1892-1956) was born in Christchurch. He left school at the age of 13 and began work as a wood carver, studying at night at the Canterbury College School of Art, where he came into contact with Frederick Gurnsey. In 1914 he moved to Wellington and studied life modelling under J. Ellis. Trethewey returned to Christchurch and decided to shift from wood carving to stone, and for the remainder of his life worked as a monumental mason, 'supplying angels and carving headstones for the people of Canterbury'. He became aware of the potential for memorial sculptures at the end of the First World War and his first commission in this line was a St Andrews cross as a memorial for Elmwood School. In 1920 he submitted a piece, 'The Bomb-thrower', to the annual Christchurch Art Society exhibition. This piece aroused a great deal of public interest, and the Society purchased it for their collection. It was considered unsuitable for a war memorial, because it was a realistic portrait of a New Zealand soldier about to hurl a grenade, rather than the idealised image of heroic youth that was preferred for war memorials. Despite this, in 1920, Trethewey was awarded the commission for the Kaiapoi war memorial, which, when unveiled in 1922, was described by the mayor as being a 'typical Anzac' down to the 'broken boot-lace'.
Other sculptures of Trethewey's between 1920 and the early 1930s include a bust of Hyman Marks, the statue of Captain James Cook, in Victoria Square, Christchurch and a statue of Maui Pomare for Manukorihi Pa in Waitara. He began his most famous work, the Citizens War Memorial in Christchurch, in 1933 and it was unveiled in 1937. This memorial is, arguably, the finest public monument in New Zealand. Subsequently he was commissioned to sculpt most of the statuary for the centennial exhibition in Wellington. The only piece of this to survive is the statue of Kupe.
The interest in monumental sculpture waned over the course of the twentieth century, and Trethewey spent the last years of his life making clocks. He died in 1956.
(Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips, 'The Sorrow and the Pride : New Zealand War Memorials', Wellington, 1990.)
4th December 2001
Report Written By
James Belich, 'Making Peoples. A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century', Auckland, 1996
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Mackay, David. 'Cook, James 1728 - 1779', updated 22 June 2007
In 1932, Matthew Barnett donated the statue of Captain Cook to the city, which stands in Victoria Square. He resided in 'Wharetiki', an eclectic Queen Anne style building located at 854 Colombo Street, Christchurch (also registered - 7551).