Sculptures that could pierce the mind and break the heart appeared in Christchurch Catholic churches from the 1970s. Aesthete and artist Ria Bancroft was the sculptor. Her hands carved each delicate nuance, though the manual toil left them chapped and riven.
Bancroft made her point – in more ways than one. Commissioned to produce a crucifixion sculpture for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the British-born artist created the work, “I Am”. Her simple “old rugged cross”, devised from work-worn iron bars, captured Christ’s agony in a way that would arrest viewers who had been raised on traditional plaster statues.
In creating this work, Bancroft pierced her own hands. Unhappy with the visual effect of real nails in the sculpture, she tried something bolder. She drilled the nails out. Then she bought three thick, heavy iron bolts. Taking a coarse metal file, she worked the thread-end of each round item into a pointed nail shape.
The pain this must have caused, the time it must have taken, the letting of blood and loss of skin can barely be imagined. Then she hammered the “nails” into the old metal bars that formed the cross. This was her Passion. This was Bancroft’s determination always to give her best.
The oversized “nails” dominate the crucifixion sculpture. They hammer home the awful truth of Jesus nailed to the cross. This impact is made without the body of Jesus being included in the sculpture. It fires vivid imagining of his suffering and death.
Shortly before this Bancroft had completed perhaps the best known of her art works in the cathedral. This is her bronze sculpture on the tabernacle screen doors for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, inside the cathedral. It depicts, at left, “Christ has died”, and at right, “Christ has risen”. The screen doors sculpture was universally acclaimed. However, Bancroft regarded the “I Am” crucifix as “more important than the tabernacle screen doors” and “the summation of all her thinking about the tabernacle”. Her daughter, Peb, stresses this point in her biography of Bancroft, “No Ordinary Woman”.
In a letter to the then Cathedral Administrator, Fr James Harrington, Bancroft explains her replacement of the nails.
“I could not accept their (the real nails) modern manufactured look. The more I thought about them, the more unacceptable they became. They did not belong. So I have finally drilled out the modern nails and replaced them with three hand-made heavy nails, which I fashioned at my work bench,” she writes.
Also in the letter she mentions the physical and mental “agony” she underwent, working alone in her studio. And she adds –
“More than ever before, the Cross holds a powerful meaning for me. How could I or anyone forge a nail so cruel for the living flesh? And yet, He (Jesus) allowed it to be done to Him for our salvation! Dear God, in Your mercy forgive us!”
Further indications of Bancroft’s character lie in her letters to Fr Kevin Clark of the Cathedral Conservation Project Committee (1968-1975).
The letters, in the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives, show that this remarkable Catholic woman, having won the crucifix commission, transferred her payment for it to the Catholic Social Services Fund.
Several other ecclesiastical works she gifted to churches and church organisations, though her own finances were often stretched.
Much of Bancroft’s artistic work in New Zealand was ecclesiastical. Many pieces were installed in her local parish church, St Mary’s, New Brighton. She lived near the church and was active in the parish for most of her time since immigrating in 1962.
Born in the Somerset town of Bath in 1907, Violet Ivy Wack (later named Ria) had two younger brothers. She was an art enthusiast from an early age. Her practicality first showed in her expertise as a seamstress. An outgoing girl, she enjoyed painting and drawing. She sang on stages and street corners. She acted in theatres and painted stage sets for their productions. She played string instruments and dabbled in modelling.
Her gift of entertainment provided a welcome boost to the Wack family finances, for the Wacks lived in relative poverty under a frugal and puritanical father. Ria felt the disdain some people showed for the family because of her father’s Germanic-sounding name (Gustave Wack) during World War I.
Marrying James Wright in 1926 fixed the problematic surname. However, the marriage was not a happy one. Wright, an older man and WWI veteran, had a violent temper. The couple had a son whom Ria had to leave in her jobless husband’s care while she travelled with performing groups to bring in some money. Meanwhile, “bringing in the money” was becoming difficult because of the burgeoning popularity of cinema. Entertainers had to roam more widely and for longer times.
Living in penury, Wright sent their son away for fostering. Ria was absent and unaware of this. Despite her efforts to trace the boy she did not see him again until he managed to trace her a decade later. Ria sought a divorce from Wright. He refused but, years later, he conceded and divorce was granted.
Much of Ria’s early life involves name-changing. Her formal name of Violet led to her being called Vily, before she took the name of Ria. For her acting she adopted stage names, such as Miss Grant. Married to Wright, she became Blanche Wright. Separating from him, she fell in love with a fellow performer, Percy Edwin Smith. He preferred to be called Eddie. Thinking his surname too ordinary, he chose his maternal grandmother’s name of Bancroft. This he abbreviated to Bankey. Soon the duet of Eddy and Ria Bankey would become a popular act.
Ria and Eddy lived together under the formal surname of Bancroft, which Ria retained. They gave dual performances of her self-accompanied singing and his humorous recitations, songs and dancing.
The birth of the Bancrofts’ daughter, Peb, in 1935, and new health problems for Ria forced the decision that she stay at home to care for the baby, while Eddy continued working. As her health improved, Ria took a job with the Post Office. She studied meanwhile and worked her way up in the service.
In World War II, Eddie enlisted in the Royal Air Force. He was deployed to serve as an entertainer for Allied military forces, sometimes within earshot of the fighting. Possibly he was in less danger than Ria and Peb. For, during a German air raid, a bomb fell on the house where they were living. The building was destroyed but mother and child were unhurt.
The reunion of the Bancrofts after the war was anguished. They married at last, in 1946, in hope they could re-start their loving relationship of the 1930s. It was too late; too much had happened. As Peb writes of her parents: “Each time I returned home for (boarding school) holidays their life had grown more mean and depressed”. Eddie was no longer a popular star. In efforts to supplement the little he could earn, Ria set up a studio and began producing ceramic and plaster models and figurines. They sold well and the venture blossomed. The effect for Eddie, though, was despondency. Peb describes it as “grinding frustration”.
In a final effort to save their marriage, Ria and Eddie decided to emigrate. They sought options and chose Toronto as their destination, as an aunt and a cousin of Ria had moved there. In 1951 they, with Peb, sailed for Canada. The move did not bring what they wanted. Working as a travelling salesman, Eddie found “another woman”. He packed his bags and walked out on Ria and Peb. Their divorce was finalised in 1954. Ria never remarried. As Peb writes: “She did not want to complicate her life again”.
Ria already impressed as one who took setbacks in her stride. This she did again. Extending her Toronto studio she threw herself into the arts, from restoring classic wooden furniture to painting remembered London scenes in oils. Her work was well rewarded by commercial and private buyers. The proceeds allowed her to do courses in art and buy new equipment to broaden her scope to producing large mechanical creatures for parades and displays.
In Toronto, Ria and Peb often debated the issue of religion. Peb had converted to Catholicism while attending a convent school in England for specialist speech teaching. Ria was against becoming Catholic as she had found her father’s religious (non-Catholic) strictures oppressive. However, she supported Peb’s marriage to Catholic businessman Aldren Simmons.
Obfuscating her age, easily done given her still youthful appearance at 50, Bancroft was admitted to an esteemed display studio in Toronto. There she became engrossed in form, producing many sculptures of all kinds and media, scoring success at various exhibitions. So engrossed did she become that she fell ill again with a long-suffered stomach ulcer. This was followed by a heart attack, seen as a stern warning to slow down. Her response was to dispose of belongings and return, alone, to England in May, 1960.
She launched into art again but her return home was a mere intermission. Bancroft had long held a desire to travel in Italy and see its art treasures upfront. She achieved this aim gloriously. The people, the art environment, studies at an Academy of Fine Arts, and successful exhibitions clarified her calling as a sculptor. New friends in her favourite city, Florence, took her into their circle. Their joyousness clarified her calling towards Catholicism. She was baptised a Catholic in 1960.
Her two years in Italy seemed the happiest and most fruitful time in Bancroft’s life. As Peb writes: “All the experience she gathered during the Italian years brought her artistic gifts to their true potential and fulfilment”.
Bancroft’s decision to move to New Zealand in 1962 may seem strange, then. There were two reasons. Firstly, Peb, Aldren and their children had shifted to Christchurch and were keen for her to join them. Secondly, a close friend in Florence pointed out that their circle was ageing. She would not like to be left here alone if they became ill and died.
Christchurch was an unpleasant shock for Bancroft. Following Florence, it seemed drab. But there was an advantage. After a few weeks with her family, she moved into her own home, at New Brighton. She removed the wall between two bedrooms In her ageing wooden bungalow and created a studio. Then she committed herself to her art with minimal interruptions.
Among the close friends she made was Christchurch artist Ida Lough, creator of the woven tapestry that was made to hang above the tabernacle bearing Bancroft’s screen doors sculpture.
Bancroft was seen as an outstanding sculptor, affirmed by New Zealand’s coterie of arts specialists. She was a celebrated member of the country’s arts ranks and gained international recognition. However, revenue from commissions and sales was irregular and sometimes insufficient for a living.
Resurrecting her theatre skills she gave lively talks and lectures which audiences enjoyed. This led to a job offer, to teach art at Christchurch’s Xavier College. After a crash course in teaching, Bancroft took up the position of art teacher at the Catholic boys’ secondary school.
She enjoyed teaching and took pride in the positive changes she saw in pupils’ approach to art. Some of the boys kept in touch with her long after leaving school. She gifted several of her works to Xavier and to the adjacent girls’ college, Sacred Heart. These schools since merged to form Catholic Cathedral College. Bancroft’s works can still be seen there.
An assessment of Bancroft’s art is beyond the capability of this writer but two aspects are evident. Bancroft insisted on integrity in her works, deploring the necessity at times to produce works appealing to others’ tastes. Secondly, and in consequence, her later works in general displayed greater originality. While some were too abstract to the uneducated eye, their artistic value was judged as higher than that of her earlier works.
Her own judgment was that these later works spoke for themselves. She would rather keep them at home than have them on exhibition for people unable to appreciate them.
Bancroft’s robust approach to her labours was made more difficult by failing health. Her medical conditions, particularly bouts of pneumonia, increased in seriousness with age. On 2 March, 1993, she was taken to Christchurch’s Princess Margaret Hospital for assessment.
Her condition worsened. Death seemed nigh. A Catholic chaplain visiting her expressed concern that she would not “let go”. Though she was placed on the critical list, she still launched into philosophical conversations, focussing on the teachings of favourite theologian Teilhard de Chardin. Six days later she did “let go”.
At the finish, daughter Peb writes: “Ria did not die – Death came and took her away”.
Mike Crean, Author
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives Photograph Collection