Story: Shurrock, Francis Aubrey

Page 1 - Shurrock, Francis Aubrey

Shurrock, Francis Aubrey

1887–1977

Sculptor, art teacher

This biography was written by Mark Stocker and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Francis Aubrey Shurrock was born in Warrington, Lancashire, England, on 5 August 1887, the son of Clementina Letitia Handley and her husband, Aubrey Hilsdon Shurrock. By 1890 the family had moved to Tarvin, near Chester, where Aubrey Shurrock became headmaster of the local grammar school. Francis was educated there and at the county school in Chester, and from 1905 to 1907 he was a pupil-teacher at Chester School of Art. In 1909 he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art, London. He was made an associate of the college and graduated with a diploma in sculpture and architecture in 1913. A fine athlete, he captained the college's soccer and cricket teams.

Shurrock's greatest academic accolade was Auguste Rodin's praise in 1913 of his sensitively pensive statuette of an adolescent, 'Peter' (which is now held in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch). While still at the Royal College of Art, Shurrock assisted the architectural sculptor James Stevenson with his designs for rebuilding Oxford Circus. In 1914–15 Shurrock taught sculpture at King Edward VII School of Art in Newcastle upon Tyne, before taking a commission in the Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) during the First World War. He was twice wounded, gassed and was taken prisoner of war in early 1918.

From 1919 to 1923 Shurrock was principal of the School of Science and Art at Weston-super-Mare. He was advised to emigrate for health reasons, and in September 1923 was appointed to succeed Frederick Gurnsey as modelling and art crafts master at the Canterbury College School of Art. Arriving in New Zealand in January 1924, Shurrock was to live and work in Christchurch for the rest of his life. There, on 13 November 1925, he married Elizabeth Davidson Hilson.

Shurrock received a cool welcome at the School of Art. His qualifications and personality were resented by the painter Richard Wallwork, who was the school's director from 1928 to 1946. Wallwork equated art with painting and attempted to cream off the best students; sculpture, a mere 'craft', came a poor second. Half of Shurrock's daytime teaching was to students aged 12 and 13; he was not informed of this requirement until his arrival. Undaunted, he put enthusiasm and energy into his teaching, especially of his older students. This earned 'Shurry', as he was known, their respect and affection. Sculptors who studied under Shurrock included Chrystabel Aitken, Jim Allen, Alison Duff, Alan Ingham, Molly Macalister and Fred Staub.

Teaching left Shurrock limited opportunities for outside work. However, with the encouragement of Professor James Shelley, who consented to be his 'first victim', he modelled portrait busts and imaginative subjects. His output was greatest in the later 1920s and 1930s: he exhibited with the Canterbury Society of Arts, The Group, the New Zealand Society of Artists, the Otago Art Society and the Royal Academy of Arts in London; he also served on the council of the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1928–29.

Two of Shurrock's public commissions from this period are the monumental medallion in marble of W. F. Massey at Point Halswell, Wellington (1930), and the bronze portrait statue of James FitzGerald in Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch (1934–36). Another notable work is his vigorously modelled bust of the painter Christopher Perkins (1933). Shurrock also painted in watercolours and oils, mostly depicting North Canterbury landscapes, and executed wood engravings and linocuts.

More intellectually ambitious than his School of Art colleagues, Shurrock contributed to the left-wing journal Tomorrow in the mid 1930s, where his utopian socialism was attacked by the young painter Toss Woollaston. He also wrote frequently for Art in New Zealand and delivered radio broadcasts on art. An enthusiastic folk and Morris dancer, he conducted Workers' Educational Association summer-school dancing classes, and even encouraged students to dance in their studio during lunchbreaks and to play bamboo pipes. The dearth of sculptural commissions during the Second World War led him to intensify these activities in the early 1940s.

Shurrock retired from teaching in 1949 to work on his most ambitious public commission, the Otago Provincial Centennial Memorial on Signal Hill, Dunedin. A collaboration with Fred Staub, it features two large bronze figures representing 'History' and 'The thread of life', and was completed in May 1957.

The last time Shurrock received public attention was in sadder circumstances. Following the recommendations of the Decimal Currency Board's design advisory committee, he was about to be commissioned to execute the reverses of the new coins when, in February 1966, the designs were leaked to the Auckland Star. The crude reproductions of his drawings provoked an outcry; there were also objections to the subjects of two designs, a musterer and a rugby player. The commission was eventually awarded to James Berry. Although upset, the elderly Shurrock kept his dignity, claiming that 'never has so small a matter over small things cost so much or caused such a furore'. Elizabeth Shurrock died on 31 December 1972; there were no children of the marriage. Francis then lived with his wife's cousin, Elizabeth Kennah Moore, until his death at Christchurch on 7 October 1977.

Francis Shurrock's work has often been underrated by art historians, perhaps partly because of his relatively cool reaction to modern art. Yet it could be claimed that he, more than anyone else, laid the foundations of sculpture education in New Zealand, indeed of New Zealand sculpture itself. His own work, while not prolific, is of great technical refinement and reflects his high artistic ideals.