Alison Duff: the essence of life

Alison Duff was a major Aotearoa New Zealand sculptor with a career spanning over sixty years. She introduced new materials and techniques and combined them with a commitment to local subject matter including native flora and fauna, and conservation concerns. She was inspired by her surroundings, without any reference to what anyone else may have done in the same field or in similar media, wrote Peter Cape who interviewed Duff in 1969. “A tui is the sound of a chime as well as shape and movement, and so her tui sculptures have sound as well as form (a carefully tuned bell, or sounding disc at the throat).” Duff carved and welded images of fantails, pied stilts, tui and kingfisher in which she tried to capture the essence of the birds and these sculptures often included acoustic elements. When asked if she observed and then drew birds before creating her sculptures, Duff replied, “No, I’d get him into my heart and then he comes out. I don’t do them photographically…. They’re not naturalistic at all. I try to get the spirit rather than the body.”

Unknown photographer. Wooden sculpture by Alison Duff, 1945-1966. Reproduced with permission of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, PH-NEG-SP-2-1847b.

Unknown photographer. Portrait of Alison Duff, working on a plaster-of-Paris maquette, in the basement studio of her house in Northcote, Auckland. November 1956. Reproduced with permission of the New Zealand Herald. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, PH-NEG-H2147.

Unknown photographer. Portrait of Alison Duff, sitting on a sawhorse, carving a sculpture entitled "Totem Pole". November 1956. Reproduced with permission of the New Zealand Herald. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, PH-NEG-H2144.

Duff’s 1.8 metre high carving Manaia (1954) was worked out of a kauri stump she’d salvaged from a creek near her Northcote home. Art historian Michael Dunn said she had provided an ecological healing service to restore this kauri to new life. It took her two years to complete. Wood sculpture of this size and type had rarely been carved here other than in a traditional Māori context, he said. Manaia was featured in this year’s exhibition “A Garden of Earthly Delights” at the University of Otago’s Hocken Collections. Curator Robyn Notman said that Duff had named the sculpture Manaia in the hope of “communicating with the source which had inspired the Māori artists of old.” Artist Colin McCahon coveted the carving for years and tried to convince the Auckland Art Gallery to acquire it but he was unable to persuade the director to do so. Instead, he used an aunt’s inheritance to purchase Manaia and he and Anne McCahon gifted it to the Hocken Library in 1979.

When discussing Manaia, Duff said she had been inspired to explore a deep gully opposite her home after kauri has been cut down. “I thought there must be something left,” she said, “so I paddled up the creek. Sure enough, I found in the bed of the creek a beautiful big log. So Lew [Duff’s husband] and I got a crowbar and jacked it up and out of the creek. It took six months to get up. It was wet and heavy and took six months to inch it up through the bush… with a crowbar and a fencing wire strainer... We finally got it in the clearing and then we let it dry a bit, and borrowed a neighbour’s horse and took it across the paddock home to where we lived.” She said she was “a bit doubtful about having a kauri down there, in the South Island, where it doesn’t belong. I hope it’s happy. But that was done really as an offering. As a sort of offering – how can I put it – to the Gods of the forest for all the kauri they’d murdered in that area. I sort of felt them crying out. So in a sense I didn’t want it to go to Dunedin. However, they’ve got it there now. It was very kind of Colin.”

The search for an essence of life was part of Duff’s quest, wrote Robin Woodward, curator of the 2001 retrospective of Duff’s work held at Auckland’s George Fraser Gallery. “Although the range of Duff’s work may be great, and the forms varied, there is but one abiding theme to her work – the search for an ultimate truth,” she said. Duff wasn’t interested in the pursuit of originality. Instead, her unerring belief was in truth to materials, wrote Woodward.

Recent New Zealand Sculpture. "Growth Forms" (left) by Arnold Wilson and "Anima" (right) by Alison Duff. Auckland Art Gallery. 1966. Photographer, Mr. Riethmaier. Reproduced with permission of Archives New Zealand. Archway Item ID: R24461314.

Alison Duff came from an Invercargill family steeped in art and letters. Her father, Oliver Duff, was the founding editor of the New Zealand Listener and her mother, Jessie Duff nee Barclay, had a deep love of literature and music. Duff went to the Canterbury College School of Art and studied under Francis Shurrock before moving to Australia. In 1936 she graduated with honours from the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School of Australia). She briefly returned to Aotearoa to work on the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington for which she designed a bas-relief frieze that was 2.4 metres high and 30 metres broad, and which extended over the entranceway to the assembly hall. She also exhibited three studies of animals at the Centennial Exhibition; Portrait of Giraffe, Slum Cats, and Foal.

From: Evening Post, Evening Post, Volume CXXVIII, Issue 112, 8 November 1939.

By 1941 Duff was head of sculpture at Hobart Technical College where she stayed for seven years before teaching at the East Sydney Technical College for five years. She moved back to Aotearoa in 1951 with her daughter Joshua. For two years she taught art and modelling at Auckland Girls’ Grammar before deciding to work fulltime as a sculptor with the support of her mother, Jess, and then her husband Len Salter.

In 1965 Duff contributed seven works for the opening of Kees Hos’s New Vision Gallery and in 1970 the gallery staged a major solo exhibition of Alison Duff’s sculpture including a portrait bust of Mahatma Gandhi, a Little Buddha and Two People on a Bus.

Duff retired in the 1980s in order to devote herself to the teachings of Indian Swami Venkatesananda, and to make portraits of him. In her seventies, after Swami Venkatesananda died, Duff returned to sculpture and modelled a portrait roundel for painter Louise Henderson. This was her last commission. She continued to sculpt on a small scale and her works found their way into private collections via contra with artist friends or simply because Duff gave them away. In a NZ Herald obituary her friend George Hadyn said Duff was impervious to the seductions of materialism, as long as she had food to eat and clothes to wear that’s all she wanted.

Duff’s work is also represented in public collections. Waikato Museum and Art Gallery purchased her bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki holds her Two People on a Bus sculpture, as well as a concrete cast of the final version of her Edmund Hillary bust. The University of Auckland has her bust of Colin McCahon. Northcote Library holds her 1990 Blackbird sculpture and Auckland Central Library has her much-loved bronze bust of Frank Sargeson. There is also a life size mother and child sculpture made from Hinuera stone commissioned by Timaru Girls High School.

From: Auckland Star, 1 August 1963.

Dan Liu. Bronze bust of Frank Sargeson, by Alison Duff.

Woodford House Old Girls’ Association commissioned Duff to make a sculpture of the school’s patron saint St Francis as a memorial to the late headmistress Miss D. M. Holland. Duff etched her own words into the base of this sculpture: “Courage, gaiety and a quiet mind.” Sentiments, she said, which could also describe St Francis’s philosophy.

From: New Zealand Herald, 28 January 1967.

Alison Duff’s Sargeson bust and Blackbird sculpture were on display in the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna library from 1 August – 31 October 2019, as part of the Three Faces of Frank exhibition.

Author: Leanne, Research North


Alison Duff, oral history, 1989.

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections OH_1389_002


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


Peter Cape. Artists and craftsmen in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1969.

Michael Dunn. New Zealand sculpture: a history. Auckland: AUP, 2008.

Anne Kirker. New Zealand women artists. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986.


Michael Dunn. Frozen Flame and Slain Tree. From: Art New Zealand, Spring 1979.

Gerhard Rosenberg. Two Auckland Sculpture Exhibitions. From: Landfall, September 1959.

NZ Herald, 28 January 1967 and 8 April 2000.

Otago Daily Times, 10 June 2019.

Sunday Star Times, 9 April 2000.


  1. Inspirational artist and inspiring article!

  2. Don't miss the exhibition at Takapuna Library - closes 31 October, 2019. It's awesome.


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