'Angels and Roses': a forgotten craftsman rediscovered

'Angels and Roses' is an exhibition with a difference. To be held at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery from 20 August to 19 October 1997, it commemorates Frederick George Gurnsey (1868-1953), who was one of the greatest European carvers in wood and stone ever to have worked in New Zealand. The exhibition, which is curated by Dr Mark Stocker, Senior Lecturer in Art History, is the culmination of three years work. Because of Gurnsey's personal reticence about his talent, and the status of carving - on the boundaries of craft and art - his achievements have been largely forgotten.

For almost fifty years, following his emigration from Britain in 1906, Gurnsey taught and carved in Canterbury. Having trained at the Central School in London, Gurnsey went on to raise New Zealand's awareness of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Between 1917 and 1920, he was acting Director of the Canterbury College School of Art, forerunner of today's School of Fine Arts. After taking early retirement in 1924, he devoted the rest of his life to freelance carving. Many prominent South Island landmarks owe their artistic excellence to him: these include the Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch (1923-4), where he carved the lions and wreaths, and St. Mary's church, Timaru, whose late Victorian heaviness is lent charm by Gurnsey's west doors, pulpit, choir stalls, organ case and altar (1925-50). Then there is one of New Zealand's most photographed buildings, the Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo (1934-5), where Gurnsey carved the altar, font and lectern. Dr Stocker adds 'the other day, in Christchurch Anglican Cathedral, I was touched to witness a Maori father and son reciting the Lord's Prayer, their eyes on Gurnsey's reredos'.

The altar of the Community of the Sacred Name (left), Christchurch (c. 1923), is one of Frederick Gurnsey's finest works and incorporates his favourite motifs of angels and roses. It has been loaned to the exhibition at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, as has his font cover, which belongs to a church in South Canterbury (1934). Here Gurnsey creates a memorial that must have brought comfort to the family of Rosa Boyle: 'heaven is a rose'.

Yet how many of us know anything about the craftsman who created these things and many more? Too modest to sign his works, Gurnsey's monograms inspired the title of the exhibition, 'Angels and Roses'. No two of Gurnsey's hundreds of carved angels, cherubim and putti are ever the same, while his thousands of roses vary from naturalistic ones to emblematic Tudor blooms. Each time he carved a rose, Gurnsey would have thought of his quiet and loyal wife, Rose Ellen.

'Angels and Roses' provides the public with an opportunity to see Gurnsey's work in an exhibition context for the first time. It will be accompanied by an illustrated, 16,000-word catalogue, published by Canterbury University Press, with support from Creative New Zealand. The idea of the exhibition came about through Dr Stocker's early research, which was conducted together with Anna Crighton, Registrar of the McDougall. Together, they wrote Gurnsey's entry in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume Three (1996). Many hours spent in interviewing Gurnsey's surviving pupils, friends and family were accompanied by many more in visiting and photographing hundreds of works. The Anglican Church archives of the Christchurch Diocese yielded further valuable insights into the quantity and range of Gurnsey's works.

The exhibits, which range from christening spoons to the Art Nouveau-influenced altar of the Community of the Sacred Name, Christchurch, have been carefully chosen for their quality and variety. Although primarily known for his carving, Gurnsey's repoussé (hand-beaten) plate had few rivals in New Zealand and this too will be exhibited. 'People will admire the simplicity of the gold chalice from a Christchurch parish church, and will be charmed by the carved oak font cover from a South Canterbury country church', Dr Stocker believes. The latter (1934), with its angel standing on a bed of roses, gently puns on the deceased young woman it commemorates, Rosa Boyle. While most exhibits are ecclesiastical commissions, Gurnsey's domestic work - including ornate Jacobean Revival furniture which he taught students at the School of Art to carve - will not be neglected. Dr Stocker hopes that 'Angels and Roses' will stimulate us into admiring and studying more of the treasures that we have on our doorstep. A further example is the sculpture of Gurnsey's successor at the School of Art, Francis Shurrock (1887-1977), which was admired by Auguste Rodin, no less. It would make a natural sequel to 'Angels and Roses', and another potential opportunity for Art History and the Robert McDougall Art Gallery to collaborate.

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Dr Mark Stocker,
Phone [03] 366-7001, ext. 8155
Art History, School of Fine Arts

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