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  • “The Pleasantest Object in Christchurch”: Thomas Woolner’s Statue of John Robert Godley
  • Mark Stocker (bio)

Thomas woolner’s bronze statue of colonial administrator John Robert Godley (1814–61) has enjoyed a momentous history in the 150 years since its unveiling in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, on 8 August 1867 (fig. 1). The statue has risen, been moved, been moved back, fallen, and risen once more. Yet it is remarkable in its own right as the sculptural epitome of the Pre-Raphaelite dictum of “truth to nature.” Indeed, London critics admired [End Page 5] it so much that they were reluctant to see it removed to distant New Zealand, almost certainly never to be seen by them again. Yet following its arrival and unveiling, it instantly attained local status that would today be termed “iconic,” and it is a quotation by Charles Bowen, residential magistrate in Christchurch and Godley’s former secretary, that inspired this article’s title. At the unveiling, Bowen claimed, “Every one whose opinion is worth anything pronounces the Godley statue a great success. It is the pleasantest object in Christchurch” (Bowen, Letter).

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Fig. 1.

A. C. Barker, Photograph of the Statue of John Robert Godley with Dr. Alfred Charles Barker Seated Below, 1869.

Photo courtesy of National Library of New Zealand.

Godley was a major figure in New Zealand and colonial history. Drawn to the to the theories and propaganda of colonial promoter Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Godley helped to found Canterbury province. But whereas Wakefield was a tragically flawed character, Godley was legendary for his “spotless integrity” and “devotion to honest, manly work” (Bowen, “Inauguration”).1 Indeed, Godley aspired to bestow on Canterbury strong Anglican values, an excellent education system, and a nuanced social hierarchy minus the grinding poverty of the “old country.” Godley named [End Page 6] Canterbury’s principal settlement, Christchurch, after his Oxford college; he framed the province’s constitution; and he passionately advocated self-government, asserting, “I would rather be governed by a Nero on the spot than by a board of Angels in London, because we could, if the worst came to the worst, cut off Nero’s head, but we could not get at the Board in London at all” (qtd. in Carrington 132). After returning to Britain, he became assistant undersecretary at the War Office and seemed destined for high political office, as a Peelite turned Gladstonian Liberal, at the time of his premature death, from tuberculosis, in November 1861.

This sad news was marked by black-bordered editions of the Lyttelton Times and The Press. The owner and editor of the latter newspaper, Godley’s close friend James Edward FitzGerald, was instrumental in the production of both print and bronze memorials, publishing A Selection from the Writings and Speeches of John Robert Godley (1863) and persuading the Canterbury Provincial Council to erect a statue funded from public revenues. A memorial committee was duly formed in London, its members including Sir John Simeon, MP for the Isle of Wight. Godley had been one of Simeon’s “oldest and dearest friends” (A. Woolner 230), while Simeon and Thomas Woolner were friendly in turn. Simeon was, furthermore, almost certainly aware of Woolner’s much-admired portrait bust of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (unveiled in 1857 at Trinity College, Cambridge), the Isle of Wight’s most famous resident after Queen Victoria.

Woolner’s principal visual aid was a photograph, probably identical to that reproduced as the engraved frontispiece to A Selection from the Writings. He preferred Godley’s distinctive wide-set eyes, high forehead, and thin build to the face of another Trinity College commission, the memorial statue of historian Thomas Macaulay. As recorded in one of Woolner’s missives, his excellent progress was confirmed by Godley’s friends when they came to see the statue: “If they had only seen his legs they would have known them for Godley’s” (Letter to Pauline Trevelyan). A nicer tribute to Pre-Raphaelite verisimilitude would be inconceivable. When the plaster model was complete, in September 1864, Woolner’s erstwhile fellow Pre-Raphaelite “brother,” Frederic George Stephens, published a lengthy eulogy of the work. Stephens imagined the moment chosen...


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