As a self-taught sculptor and monumental mason committed to New Zealand subject-matters, William Trethewey would find neither fame nor fortune. He did, however, craft one of the nation’s finest First World War memorials.
Born in Christchurch, Trethewey left school in 1905 at age thirteen to pursue wood-carving. Trethewey later began his didactic anatomical tuition by reading about Bernini, Michelangelo and Rodin, and concentrated upon a different muscle each morning while he shaved. Soon thereafter he shifted his focus to monumental masonry.
Trethewey’s significant commissions included a life-sized sculpture of Margaret Cruickshank, the first registered woman doctor in New Zealand; a sculpture of Captain James Cook for Christchurch’s Victoria Square; and the Kaiapoi War Memorial, unveiled in 1922. Trethewey’s early style of war memorials, as exemplified in the Anzac soldier in Kaiapoi, proved unpopular due to their determined, unrefined realism.
In 1933 Trethewey received his most significant commission: a war memorial based next to Christchurch Cathedral in Cathedral Square. With a 60-foot high central cross, five symbolic bronze figures at the base, and an angel breaking the sword of war, Trethewey satisfied his commissioners’ desire that his design convey high ideals. These personified ideals (Youth, Justice, Peace, Valour and Sacrifice), each based on Trethewey’s family and acquaintances, were carved full-size in clay, boxed and sent them to Burtons foundry in London for casting. Unveiled in 1937, the balance of forces and proportions in the memorial’s design is superb, and it nowadays acts as the focal point for Christchurch’s Anzac Day ceremonies.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Jock Phillips