Restless, energetic, and still learning

Under-appreciated here in New Zealand, 75-year-old sculptor Tony Stones is continuing to create ambitious bronze works in England and China

Tony Stones, sculptor, will soon be seventy-five: a New Zealander of surpassing talent, but for whom there are unlikely to be celebrations or presentations in what was once his homeland, no Prime Minister’s prize for contributions to art, no TV special to look back on an artist’s life well lived, or forward to a blooming talent that still has much to contribute to sculpture - not just in subject matter, but to interpretive form, technique, materials.

In some ways his career resembles that of Ernst Plischke, the Austrian modernist architect, who made his home in Wellington as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939, and stayed until 1963. Never really accepted by the architectural establishment here, he eventually returned to his native Vienna, greatly regretted by avant-garde opinion, and completely ignored by the rest of us.

Stones arrived in New Zealand in 1952 at the age of 18 having just finished a course at the Manchester Regional College of Art. Over the next 30 years, working at a variety of jobs at first adjacent to, but eventually at the heart of, the small New Zealand world of creative art, he contributed greatly to our artistic heritage, though he gained little or no public recognition for it. Most reasonably perceptive Wellingtonians not only know, but love, the larger than life-size portrait sculpture of Peter Fraser outside the Old Government Buildings (now the Victoria University Law School). Fraser leans forward into the Wellington wind, his satchel under his arm, his forward gait determined. Decency, modesty and integrity seem to flow out of the bronze figure much as the floods of admiration flowed towards the Prime Minister from an admiring public as a result of these widely detected traits. Yet few observers could tell you who the work is by.

The same is probably true of Aucklanders and the remarkable monument to Jean Batten at Auckland International Airport, or Nelson residents who must often see his Migrants memorial group, marked by their deep apprehension, even fear. “Oh dear God,” they seem to say. “What have we done?” Stone’s heads of McKormick, Frame and Curnow that grace the Alexander Turnbull Library, or the busts of Stead, Shadbolt  and Pearson that are in private collections; the sturdy winemaker memorial statue in Henderson; and the seven powerful bronze portrait sculptures of Pacific Explorers that Bryce Harland - once our prince of diplomats - made sure, when he was High Commissioner in London, that Stones was commissioned to make for the New Zealand pavilion at the 1992 international exhibition in Seville: none of these works could be identified as his by more than a tiny number of New Zealanders.

Five of the monumental Pacific Explorers are now kept in the storage basement of Te Papa, though Tasman can be seen in Nelson, and Cook now gazes out from his landing place at Gisborne. But for Kupe, de Bougainville, Quiros, Mendana and Magellan we must dream, or beg.

Stones needed a bigger stage and a more receptive public than we could offer him, and when he returned to England in 1983 he chose to settle in Oxford, where the University might offer a portrait sculptor a reasonable stab at earning a living, as well as build a reputation for craftsmanship and insight. To say that he succeeded is understatement. The catalogue of his portrait busts embraces half a dozen Oxford colleges, the Irish Writers Museum, the National Gallery of Ireland, Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the Theatre Museum at Stratford-upon-Avon (a beautiful head of Ben Kingsley). Recognition of his talent brought with it more important commissions, both public and private. And with his bronze equestrian statue of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonny Prince Charlie) for the city of Derby - which is where, in 1745, the Young Pretender turned back to Scotland - he has become renowned as a master of large works in which proportion and scale are successfully married to the myriad details of physiognomy, anatomy, costume and personality. His Young Shakespeare for the sculpture garden of a private patron, which imagines the boy genius in hunting mode, is a brilliant evocation of an idea, subtly interpreted, and vividly decorated.

In the past five years, restless, energetic, and still learning, Stones has spent more and more time in China, and now lives there for six months of the year. The Chinese have taken him to their hearts and minds in a way, and to a degree, that was never possible for us in New Zealand. Observant New Zealanders walking the pedestrian way to the Birds Nest Stadium for the Olympic Games would have seen and admired the seven larger than life bronze statues of The Running Man, which the Chinese Olympic authorities commissioned from him. I greatly fear, however, that they would not have known who made them.

These remarkable works, traditional in style, immensely fluid and athletic, may mark a turning point. With his wife Lily Feng Stones he has built a new house and studio in Beijing. He has taken to drawing left handed, saying that it demands greater concentration, but yields a more fluid line. He has begun to work in other media, including sheet metal. At the age of 75 the range of his interests and the ambition of his work continue to expand.

As evidence of this he has recently completed a large and very difficult work of great scope and energy that is testament to his continued vitality. A private patron, scion of the turf but from humble beginnings, has acquired two sets of huge ornamental gates that previously stood one set at Ascot racecourse, and the other at the entrance to the Harland & Wolf wharf in the London docks (where the patron’s father had been a labourer). Three sculptors have been commissioned to make life-size bronze figures, one of top-hatted toffs (coming through one set of gates) another of dockside workers coming through the other, and a third of the Queen and Prince Philip meeting and mingling with the two “tribes” at the only ritual they have in common - horse racing. Stones’ commission was the wharfies. He has produced a set of six figures of great dignity and energy which everyone who has seen them calls moving. The working men surrender nothing to the top hats in their vigour and pride. It is as if Stones saw in them an idea of humanity, perhaps an ideal of humanity,  that, fearing it might be lost, he has sought to preserve in bronze. The whole work will be on show at Ascot next summer.

It would be worth the trip to see both what the wider world is gaining, and what we, in losing him, have given to it.