Story: Kidson, Charles
Art teacher, artist, craftsman, sculptor
This biography was written by Michael Dunn and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Charles Kidson was born in Bilston, near Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England, on 7 November 1867, the son of Charles Kidson, a blacksmith, and his wife, Christina (Christiana) Dore (née Oxley). The family emigrated to Nelson, New Zealand, in 1885, but at first Charles stayed on in England while he studied art at evening classes in Birmingham and worked for an engineering firm by day. In 1888, due to illness, he decided to join his parents in Nelson, where it was hoped that a more benign climate would improve his health.
On 1 February 1892 he was appointed an assistant master at the Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch, at a salary of £100, instructing in life drawing, Greek and Roman sculpture, geometry, perspective, modelling, carving and repoussé work. He proved a capable and efficient teacher with a strong bias towards applied art – perhaps a reflection of his engineering training. He made a lasting friendship with Samuel Hurst Seager, a local architect then teaching at the School of Art. On 7 January 1896 in Nelson he married Kitty Esther Hounsell, a schoolteacher.
Kidson's practical talent enabled him to make beaten copper ornamental hinges for the doors of his house (which was designed by Seager), and copper panels for the fireplace. He also found time to paint and carry out design work. He exhibited paintings and other works at the Canterbury Society of Arts and in Wellington in the 1890s.
In 1903 Kidson returned to England for six months, where he visited major art collections and attended classes in wood-carving at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington. He also studied modelling at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Returning to Christchurch, he undertook a number of major works while retaining his teaching post, and then in 1906 resigned to begin a full-time career as a sculptor and craftsman.
In taking this step, Kidson's hopes were for an increase in income, not for a bohemian lifestyle free from obligations. He was prepared to undertake any kind of work, from leadlight windows to caddy spoons, fire-screens and ornamental hinges. In the first six months of his professional career he earned £87, a modest income. His prospects for the long term must have been hard to assess, but in the event he remained fully employed until the time of his premature death.
Kidson's sculptural work was conservative in style and subject, and he obtained commissions for a number of portrait busts of local dignitaries, as well as creating 'fancy pieces' such as 'Daughter of Eve' (1907), a marble study of a young girl smiling (based on his daughter Elsa). As a portraitist he can make no claims to extraordinary talent, but his finished works bear favourable comparison with many of those shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London at the time. His approach was craftsmanlike in its sober accuracy to the model. A bust of Richard Seddon made for Parliament Buildings in 1907 (after Seddon's death) was based on photographs, worked up in clay, and the plaster model used as the basis for the final version in marble. In this academic method, care and premeditation were prized more than directness of approach. (The bust was destroyed when it was knocked off its pedestal by an earthquake in December 1942.)
The award of this commission to a local sculptor was in itself remarkable, and due in large part to Kidson's efforts. Such commissions 'should go to those who are struggling in our little community to make progress in art', he wrote to Prime Minister Joseph Ward, and would be 'a help and an incentive such as you would perhaps hardly realize'. Ward himself seems to have taken little interest in the matter, but Kidson found support from several MHRs, notably local members George Laurenson and T. E. Taylor. This success was followed by a local commission for a marble bust of Sir John Hall.
Kidson's major public statue is the John Grigg memorial at Ashburton, designed by Seager and completed in 1905. The monument is in two parts: a full-length standing portrait of the pioneer farmer, with relief carvings of farming activities on the pedestal. Grigg is shown informally as if walking around his property, holding a coat over his arm. The portrait is naturalistic, and the farming theme is carried through at the rear of the figure where sheaves of wheat help support the carved image. The reliefs on the base of the monument, however, suggest that Kidson had a limited range of invention, and they also reveal limitations in his technique. As was noted at the time, the Grigg memorial is remarkable less for sculptural innovation than for demonstrating that such work could be carved in New Zealand and did not need to be imported.
Charles Kidson died in Christchurch on 2 October 1908. He was survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. His importance lies not in the originality of his art, which was small, but in the professional standards which he reached in his best work and represented in a colonial environment. In addition, he established a precedent for a sculptor living from the sale of his art, and competing successfully with British sculptors for commissions.