The frieze wrapping around the exterior of the Auckland War Memorial Museum building skilfully blends ancient with modern to bring the timelessness and grandeur of Ancient Greece together with the story of New Zealanders in WWI and WWII.
Classical design adapted for local stories
High up on the Museum exterior, resting just above the colonnade, and wrapping around the full building perimeter, is a beautiful decorative Doric entablature complete with architrave, frieze and cornice. Inspired by Ancient Greek temple architecture, and specifically the Parthenon in Athens, the Museum architects, Grierson Aimer and Draffin, carefully recreated an alternating pattern of metopes (decorated panels) and triglyphs (channelled stone). But instead of classical scenes, the carved stone panels show New Zealand armed forces in action.
We see the First World War depicted around the northern half of the Museum – this wing opened in 1929 – and the Second World War depicted around the southern half, which opened in 1960. But it was the 1929 carvings by celebrated sculptor Richard Oliver Gross (1882-1964) that set the style and tone for all the panels.
Honouring battle weary soldiers
The stone frieze is one of the most interesting details on the exterior, as it connects the viewer with the personal experiences of New Zealand soldiers and, in combination with the name of the battle fronts inscribed above each window, it narrates the purpose of the building. Historian Michael Dunn describes Gross as a sculptor who "was able to respond to popular sentiments and translate them into enduring monuments of stone and bronze". The frieze is no exception. The soldiers don't look young and heroic; they look battle weary and aged with deeply lined faces and heavy expressions.
This is one of several examples on the building where the designers honour the courage of soldiers, while also acknowledging the terrible loss of life and their ultimate sacrifice. The frieze, through its human subjects and the hand of an experienced and talented sculptor, walks this line by laying bare some of the realities of battle, while back-dropped by the dignity and solemnity of Ancient Greek architecture.
UK-born and educated, Gross was an accomplished sculptor in the academic style, known for his beautifully proportioned and dignified human forms. He was the sculptor of choice in the North Island between the wars, working regularly with architects Keith Draffin and William Gummer. In Auckland, some of his more well-known work includes the Auckland Grammar School War Memorial statue (1924), the Auckland Domain gates athlete (1936) and the Māori chief for the One Tree Hill memorial (1940). A great technician in both stone and bronze, he had his own bronze foundry where he built all but his largest works.
For the 1929 Auckland War Memorial Museum building, in addition to the 44 battle scenes around the frieze, Gross was also responsible for the original Palm Court vases and the bronze kawakawa wreath in the Sanctuary.
Dunn, M.(2002). New Zealand Sculpture: A History.
Maclean, A. and Phillips, J. (1990). The Sorrow & the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials.
Phillips, J. (2012). Gross, Richard Oliver from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012
The history of Auckland Museum. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
Stevens, A. (2015). A living memorial. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
Lorimer, E. (2016). Names on the walls, engraved in stone. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
Research the planes and tanks seen in the frieze in MOTAT's collection online.
Cite this article
The Auckland Museum frieze: Scenes of war. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 23 November 2015. Updated: 10 November 2016.