Three Faces of Frank

There can’t be too many Aotearoa NZ writers who have been immortalised in bronze three times – but Frank Sargeson has been. His three portrait busts were made by sculptors Terry Stringer, Anthony Stones and Alison Duff. They are being shown together for the first time in an exhibition called Three Faces of Frank, in the Angela Morton Room in Takapuna Library from 1 August – 31 October 2019.

Dinah Holman. Frank Sargeson. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1360-40.

Duff produced the first bust of Sargeson, commissioned by The Arts Advisory Council (forerunner of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of NZ) in 1963. However, Sargeson took some persuading because he was annoyed that the Arts Council had turned down funding for a theatre production he was involved in. He finally agreed to sit for Duff, who was also a friend, and in the end he wrote that she had produced a torso which he was obliged to admire: “her work much more than myself.”

From: New Zealand Herald, 16 October 1963.

Duff depicted Sargeson in animated conversation, and in his shirtsleeves “because he is a writer of the people,” she said. She made four models over six months before she was satisfied. Robin Woodward, who curated Duff’s retrospective exhibition in 2001, wrote “Even when she’s modelling portraits Duff is trying to capture the essence of the person rather than create a realistic portrait… with… Sargeson she worked rapidly, leaving the texture roughened as if a sketch-like working method would capture the spontaneity and vitality of his dynamic personality.”

From: New Zealand Herald, 5 June 1965.

This bust has been on permanent display at Auckland Central City Library since 1965. Sargeson – a regular visitor to the library – was often seen approvingly circling his bronze image. Mr D. A. Highet of the Arts Council said it would “not only be a living memory of Miss Duff’s work but will also keep before us the name of Frank Sargeson, who is to many of us the greatest living New Zealand writer.”

Alison Duff's bronze portrait bust of Frank Sargeson.

Anthony Stones’ bust of Sargeson had a more convoluted journey to a home at Takapuna Library. It was only purchased by the Takapuna City Council following an early form of crowdfunding by the local community. In 1970 the Moller Art Gallery suggested Council buy a bronze casting of Tony Stones’ ciment fondu head of Sargeson, who had lived in Takapuna for over 40 years. Council requested advice from the Auckland Art Gallery director who praised the quality of Stones’ work and said the head was a strongly modelled piece which captured the personality of the sitter. But Council voted not to buy the head for financial reasons. The bust came with a price tag of $350 – around $5,600 in today’s money. Local resident Mrs N. Free immediately began raising the funds herself. She phoned friends and asked if they would donate a dollar or two. The Mayor arranged for these donations to be received at the Takapuna library in envelopes addressed: “The Frank Sargeson Fund, care of the head librarian.” He advised people to leave their names and addresses so that the money could be returned if insufficient funds came in.

Anthony Stones' bronze portrait bust of Frank Sargeson.

When the appeal reached $308 Mrs Free asked Council to pay the balance “to ensure that as a matter of civic pride, Mr Sargeson’s place in the literary world should be recognised both now and in the future.” Finally, Council authorised the head librarian to purchase the bust from Moller’s Gallery - and thanked Mrs Free for her public spirited action.

From: New Zealand Herald, 17 June 1970.

Like Alison Duff, Stones was part of Sargeson’s friend circle. He met the writer in the 1950s and later said he had been profoundly affected by Sargeson who he felt exemplified the creative life. “Dedication to the job, high standards, a commitment to what was excellent. I’ve never run across an intelligence like Frank’s since and I don’t suppose I ever will,” he said.

Stones exhibited twelve portrait busts at Moller’s Gallery in 1978 – including Sargeson’s. Denys Trussell wrote a review in Islands and commented “All the foibles and strengths of Stones’ subjects are visible, but their inner selves emerge through their everyday faces. Sculpture that embodies character as unpretentiously as this is more rare and valuable than a good novel.”

This was not to be the last bust made of Sargeson. Two years before he died in 1982, he sat for sculptor Terry Stringer. When describing Stringer’s bust to his friend Ralph Bodle, Sargeson said “he has done … a head of me in the round – or rather in the flat, because although it is indubitably three-dimensional it assumes the form of a double profile. I become startlingly narrow-headed, yet the constriction doesn’t matter when the eye goes right and left to the profiles he has so cleverly (from the technical viewpoint certainly) been after. Anyhow, now this young man’s name, Terry Stringer - it’s a name which I think will persist.” Norma Kerr donated to the bust to the Frank Sargeson Trust in 2002.

Terry Stringer's bronze portrait bust of Frank Sargeson. Image reproduced with permission of Depot Artspace: Sargeson Swerve exhibition 2018.

The three Sargeson busts will be on display in the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna Library from 1 August – 31 October 2019. Everyone is welcome to attend the opening night event, from 6pm, where an oral history librarian will be on hand to record people’s memories of Frank Sargeson.

Author: Leanne, Research North


Free guided tours of Frank Sargeson’s house are also available via Research North at Takapuna Library. Please phone 09 890 4924 to make an appointment.

References


Letters of Frank Sargeson. Selected and edited by Sarah Shieff. Auckland: Vintage, 2012.

Wynne Colgan. The Governor’s Gift: The Auckland Public Library 1880-1980. auckland: Richards Pub., and Auckland City Council, 1980.

Auckland Metro, May 1983.

Auckland Star, 25 November 1970.

Islands: A New Zealand Quarterly of Arts and Letters, May 1978.

NZ Herald; 16 October 1963, 5 June 1965, 17 and 19 June 1970, 22 July 1970.

New Zealand Listener, 3 October 1998 and 22 January 1983.

North Shore Times Advertiser, 28 July 1970.

In retrospect : Alison Duff 1914-2000. Text, Robin Woodward. Catalogue of an exhibition held at the George Fraser Gallery, 2001.

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