A small spate of arsons in Christchurch schools over the weekend was reported in this morning's Press. A photograph [see left] showed the principal of Manning Intermediate, the most badly damaged school, squatting awkwardly in front of a sculptural relief which had been severely charred. For once, the artist of the background artwork was identified in the caption: the work was by Ria Bancroft.
I met Ria Bancroft in the early 1990s, a year or so before her death, when I went to interview her at her home in New Brighton. She was born in the same year as Rita Angus, and had moved to New Zealand in the early 1960s. She was a slight, demure, softly-spoken elderly lady with a British accent; she wore a small crucifix and plain, neat clothes; she was a little like a very kindly nun. I didn't know a great deal about her, and was astounded by both the scale and the ambition of some of her sculptural work. Over a cup of tea she showed me a scrapbook, as I remember, with small pictures of some of her earlier works sellotaped in. She spoke about the difference between modelling and carving, and some of the problems of working in metal. I went away feeling that I should have known her: that the identity of the person, as well as her work, should be better known in the cultural life of the city.
A few days after meeting Ria, I went to the Catholic Basilica near the end of Barbadoes Street and looked at her designs for the Tabernacle Doors: vaguely Symbolist, slightly Rodin-esque, with a kind of swirling Art Nouveau energy translated into a no-nonsense modernist idiom. They were quiet, and small, and modest, and had a grace to them which seemed entirely appropriate for the subject and the setting. I liked them a lot.
I was familar with Ria Bancroft's abstract sculptural relief, Energetic Forms (1965-6), from the concourse outside the Science lecture theatres at the University of Canterbury. It's one of those works that you always notice (it's enormous, about 6 or 7 metres long), wonder briefly who made it, and walk past. You do the same thing next time you see it, and the next, until it becomes part of the scenery, but somehow I never stopped noticing it. I didn't realise it was by Ria Bancroft, until she told me. It had been commissioned by the Ministry of Works for the building, and was, I think, the largest work she made.
Ria Bancroft, with Pat Mulcahy, Energetic Forms, 1965-6, Carved wood, plastic resin and applied colour, University of Canterbury
In the mid-1980s, when I was first at varsity, Energetic Forms looked incredibly old-fashioned: dated modernist wall jewellery for the equally dated concrete neo-brutalist building it adorned. I saw it again recently, and realise that twenty or so years later I have achieved a newfound respect for both aesthetics. It involves admiration, perhaps, for their mutual conviction that a humanist ideology might be effectively communicated through stripped-back form. (As a student of the ironic-critical-relativist late 80s I can't really bring myself to believe in this kind of modernist essentialism, but I do respect the sensibility.)
Seeing Ria's work -- albeit damaged -- in the newspaper this morning has brought a few things to mind. Firstly, I hope the school seeks professional conservation advice about restoring the work: the public art gallery would be a good place to start. And should it be possible to restore, I trust that some appropriate public fund be made available for the restoration: it's not something that should come out of the school's own coffers.
It also struck me that it would be useful -- for purposes of both scholarship and preservation -- if the newly-updated public art register were expanded to include works such as these scattered across the whole city which are effectively in public ownership, but which aren't owned or administered by the City Council. Putting all these works on the public record is an important way to make them accessible as well as to keep them in mind: the public sculptures currently being taken out of Aotea Square and quietly put away shows how quickly works no longer in fashion can be lost from public view.
And finally, the photograph has reminded me again that Ria Bancroft's work deserves to be better known. Sure, the art gallery put together an exhibition of her work [PDF] in the late 1990s [interesting fact from the catalogue: as a child, Bancroft was friendly with the inventor of plasticine, William Harbutt, who encouraged her to model animals which he displayed in his shop], and her daughter the writer Peb Simmons produced a biography of her mother, but I wish, somehow, that a sense of Bancroft's graceful modernist aesthetic, as well as knowledge of her work and life, were broader. At the very least, as a public sculptor working in the 1960s and 1970s, Ria Bancroft should hold the equivalent art-historical position in the formation of Christchurch's visual identity as Guy Ngan does in Wellington. Not sure how I can help make that happen, except by continuing to talk about her.