Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

A New Zealand Sculptor's Diary: W. T. Trethewey in Europe, 1936

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

A New Zealand Sculptor's Diary: W. T. Trethewey in Europe, 1936

Article excerpt

A sculptor's diary is a relatively rare thing in art history. That compiled by the New Zealander William Thomas Trethewey (1892-1956) (fig. 1) is a unique document, chronicling his voyage to and sojourn in Great Britain, as well as visits to Germany, France and Australia, between 16 January and 22 September 1936.1 The diary runs to a remarkable 952 pages - some 110,000 words - and meticulously yet exuberantly covers every stage of his 'Great OE' ('Overseas Experience' in New Zealand parlance), from his departure from Lyttelton, New Zealand on his outward voyage to his departure from Sydney, bound for Auckland, on his return voyage.

As a diarist, Trethewey is no David d'Angers and still less a Keith Vaughan. Yet he is no Pooter either: there is minimal pretension or self-importance about him. A colonial classlessness is already evident in this second-generation New Zealander. What also indubitably emerges is what today would be called a 'people person'. As much at home in a saloon bar as an interested visitor to the Royal College of Art, Trethewey is sociable, curious, quick-witted, observant and good-humoured, a listener as well as a talker. He is no intellectual: his prose provides few insights into the workings of his mind or even into the creation of sculpture. Yet he is always engaging at whatever he addresses, and is vividly, even infectiously enthusiastic in his descriptiveness. Rather like his actual sculpture, Trethewey may not be profound but he nails it.

Trethewey himself is every inch the 'colonial Cornish man' of his self-description and era.2 Never does he use the phrase 'Mother Country' to describe Britain. Instead, he remains constantly and proudly a New Zealander; and it is New Zealand that is certainly his 'Home'. Yet Trethewey's love affair with his destination at times vies with that of his near-contemporary Alan Mulgan, author of the infatuatedly Anglophile Home: A Colonial's Adventure (1927), which describes afternoon tea in a Great Western Railway restaurant car as 'almost a piece of poetry'.3 Trethewey is in turn near delirious when he beholds the picturesque Devonshire village of Clovelly: 'of all the marvellous places I have seen, Clovelly is it. Marvellous. Really I say this about everything I see but everything in England to an appreciative colonial IS MARVELLOUS.'4

In strictly art-historical terms, Trethewey's diary reveals relatively few 'marvellous' insights, indeed, fewer than one might expect given his position by 1940 as 'the only really successful New Zealand sculptor'.5 The explanation lies surely in his self-made status and his practical bent, as well as his cultural milieu. The son of a Cornish carpenter, Jabez Trethewey (1851-1935), who had emigrated to New Zealand in the 1870s, William had initially trained as a woodcarver and earned his later livelihood as a monumental mason. By the 1930s he enjoyed a measure of success and even prosperity, which enabled him to go on what amounted to this sabbatical.6 He had only been noted for his sculpture over the previous 10-15 years, and its status was still widely regarded in the New Zealand public mind as a secondary 'craft' rather than being comparable to painting as an 'art'.7 For a craftsman-cum-businessman like Trethewey, this was probably less of an issue than it was for his traditionally more highly regarded and high-minded counterparts, notably Margaret Butler, R. N. Field, Richard Gross and Francis Shurrock.8 Surely alone of these sculptors, Trethewey found the experience of a visit to a linoleum factory in Kirkcaldy or a steel mill in Middlesbrough as riveting as one to an artist's studio, and worthier of lengthy description.

It would be anachronistic and perhaps even intellectually snobbish to expect Trethewey to have foregrounded any fraternizing with his sculptural peers or indeed to have critiqued their works. Furthermore, he wrote the diary as much for his mother, wife and three eldest children in Christchurch as he did for himself, posting them excerpts of it at various stages. …

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