The idea of erecting a statue to Queen Victoria in Christchurch was first considered as part of Canterbury Province's jubilee celebrations of 1900. The Mayor of Christchurch, William Reece, called for a monument that would commemorate not just the Queen, but also the Pakeha settlement of Canterbury, local industries and the soldiers fighting in the South African (Boer) War. In August of 1900 it was agreed that the Jubilee Memorial Committee should commission such a monument and the committee began looking for a suitable sculptor.
The Jubilee Memorial Committee agreed, on 11 January 1901, that a statue should be commissioned from British sculptor Francis John Williamson (1833-1920). Williamson had recently completed a statue of Queen Victoria for the City of Auckland (erected in Albert Park) and his effigy of Bishop Harper, in ChristChurch Cathedral had been well received in Christchurch. Williamson promoted himself as 'the Queen's Sculptor'. His 1887 statue of Queen Victoria for the Royal College of Surgeons in London was described by the Prince of Wales as 'the best portrait ever executed' of her.
Twelve days after the Committee agreed to approach Williamson Queen Victoria died, an event which lent some urgency to the commission. As the chairman of the committee, Henry Wigram, pointed out, the Queen's death was likely to lead to a significant number of statues being ordered. It was decided, after some discussion, to erect the statue in Market Square, which would be renamed Victoria Square at the unveiling in 1903. The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Cornwall and York in June 1901, but the statue did not arrive in New Zealand until January 1903. This delay was caused by the large number of statues, including many of Queen Victoria, awaiting casting in Britain. When the statue did arrive it only had one of its six bronze relief panels: the one giving the dates of Queen Victoria's birth and death.
Despite the missing panels, speakers at the unveiling referred to the importance of the memorial as a example of colonial patriotism and as a tool to inform future generations about the struggles and successes of the early colonists, the importance of arts and industries and the 'grand free system of education' established in New Zealand. A second unveiling of the statue, complete with all six panels, took place the following year, 1904. At this time people's attention centred upon the roll of honour, which commemorated the Canterbury dead from the South African War.
The Christchurch statue is very similar to the one Williamson sculpted for Auckland, apart from its size (it was considerably larger) and the fact that the Queen is portrayed holding a sceptre rather than a handkerchief and fan. Both the statues resemble Williamson's 1887 statue of Queen Victoria for the Royal College of Surgeons. The six bronze relief panels of the Christchurch statue were adapted by Williamson from earlier drawings by Charles Kidson, a teacher at the Canterbury College School of Art. Kidson's sketches had illustrated 'Typical Forms of Industries', 'The Pioneers', 'Canterbury Sending Forth her Rough Riders' and a roll of honour. Williamson separated the 'Typical Forms of Industries' into four separate relief panels: 'Manufacture', 'Education', 'Agriculture' and 'Pastoralism', and changed 'The Pioneers' to an illustration of the colonists arriving in Lyttelton.
The statue of Queen Victoria is one of four such erected in the four main centres in New Zealand, and the second to be commissioned. It is significant as a memorial to Queen Victoria and to the Pakeha settlers of Canterbury, and also as a South African War memorial. As a memorial to Queen Victoria it is part of an imperial phenomenon that resulted in statues of her being erected throughout the British Empire. It is locally important as one of the landmarks of Victoria Square. In terms of Williamson's work, the bronze reliefs show 'a robust late Victorian realism', which counters the general interpretation of his work as conservative and neo-classical in style.
15th August 2001
Report Written By
Bulletin of New Zealand Art History
Bulletin of New Zealand Art History
Mark Stocker, ' 'The pleasantest object in Christchurch' : Thomas Woolner's statue of John Robert Godley from commissioning to unveiling', 1998, 19, pp.7-28.