Ventures into public art for some councils in Hawke's Bay have caused a stir of controversy here and there over the years.

When the Spirit of Napier statue on Napier's Marine Parade was unveiled on December 22, 1971, Mr W S Sheat of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council praised the Napier City Council "for having the courage to enter the field of the arts – a field which was likely to involve the council in controversy".

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At that time, according to Sheat, Napier was "one of the leaders in municipal government in the country in providing works of art for the beautification of the city and for the benefit of the city".


The Spirit of Napier statue, however, almost didn't happen.

Dr Thomas Gilray OBE, a past superintendent of Napier Hospital, had left a bequest to the city of Napier after his death in 1970.

The council had decided on September 9, 1970, to use the money to commission a statue of a nude young lady. Many Napierites were not happy with the choice for the bequest, and claimed Dr Gilray would not approve.

The Napier council listened to the feedback, and decided on October 27, 1970, to delay the commissioning of the statue for six months and revisit their decision in April 1971.

The council decided to press ahead in 1971 and commissioned Hungarian-born sculptor Frank Szirmay, of Auckland. Apparently, he was given a photo of a young model to form the sculpture.

Mayor Peter Tait and Councillor Higgins visited Auckland to examine the mould before Frank cast the bronze statue.

Frank Szirmay explained the upwardly reaching nude lady was symbolising "Napier rising from the ashes of the 1931 earthquake and showing the prosperity which has been won since that catastrophe".

The cost of the statue, pedestal and pool (the last two designed by David Low of Napier City Council's Parks and Reserves) was $28,000 (2018: $360,000).

The Gilray bequest contributed $8000, Lew Harris $5000 and the council, through the subdivision reserve account, $14,000. The reserve on which the Spirit of Napier was located would be known as the Gilray Reserve.

Napier mayor Peter Tait said at the unveiling, with "ugliness, distrust in the world" it was good to look upon the things that were beautiful.

In 1973, about one-and-half years after the statue had been placed in the Gilray Reserve, it started to have some discolouration due to the sea air.

The council contacted Frank Szirmay, who replied he wanted the bronze to remain as it was, but the council insisted it be painted. It was. The gold paint led to the statue's nickname of the Golden Girl by locals.

In 1974, Englishman L E Gibbard visited Napier as a guest of the Hawke's Bay Art Gallery and Museum. Gibbard was managing director of the Morris Singer & Susse foundry in England (which cast statues).

He had a confidential word to the town clerk of the council, Mr L P Ryan, and said the joints in the casting were opening up, and they needed to be welded. Moreover, he was "surprised and disappointed" to see that what he termed a small piece of sculpture should have been cast in four parts.

Gibbard also added that the council should never have lacquered the statue and let it be exposed to the weather in the normal way, as Frank Szirmay had wanted.

Town clerk L P Ryan and the city engineer used binoculars to examine the joints and concluded they weren't opening up, but that the join was apparent on the legs and arms and showing through the paint. This disappointed the council and it wanted some action from Frank Szirmay.

Frank was annoyed by the criticism from L E Gibbard and explained that New Zealand foundries could not cast the Spirit of Napier in two pieces (Pania of the Reef was cast in Italy).

The cost of sending it to an overseas foundry had been prohibitive, based on his budget, but that had not impaired the quality. It was the council's doing to paint it and if it had been left to weather naturally, the patina (tarnish produced by oxidation) would have made the joins less obvious. If the paint was removed by thinners, it would discolour the bronze.

The statue was left as it was, and so began a programme of repainting it for many years as the paint flaked off.

That confidential word to town clerk Ryan by L E Gibbard, unfortunately, was extended to a Daily Telegraph reporter. It made the news, and had a ripple effect on another of Frank's projects.

At that time, the New Zealand National Airways had commissioned Frank to create a statue for the airport at Napier to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary.

Reading of the criticism of the Spirit of Napier, they contacted the council, instead of the artist. Frank was upset. The godwit statue at the airport, however, went ahead.

In 1994 the Napier council completed gardens around the Spirit of Napier in the Gilray Reserve.

By 2009, the council was looking at letting the statue go back to its natural bronze as the paint flaked off, with the support of the late sculptor's daughter, Marte Szirmay.

A closer examination showed it had bronze rot – it was not restorable. It took seven hours to remove her, as if she didn't want to leave her pedestal. Frank Szirmay had been right when 40 years earlier he told town clerk L P Ryan the statue was securely attached.

Local sculptor Russell Evenson replaced the old Golden Girl with a higher quality silicon-bronze statue.

The new Golden Girl was eager to be put on her pedestal in September 2011, and the process was completed without fuss.

• Michael Fowler ( is a freelance writer, contract researcher and speaker of Hawke's Bay's history.