Tag Archives: Bertram Mackennal

Sculptors & Stonemasons

This post is based on the tours that I gave to publicise the publication of my book, Sculptures of Melbourne earlier this year. Most of the examples can be found around Gordon Reserve at Parliament Station.

Bertram Mackennal, allegorical relief, 1888  Victoria’s Parliament House

Bertram Mackennal, allegorical relief, 1888 Victoria’s Parliament House

I was asked on one of my sculpture tours if Bertram Mackennal would have been a better sculptor if he hadn’t spent so much time working on commissions. I replied that I didn’t think that he would have been a sculptor at all if not for all the commissions.

Sir Bertram Mackennal, was born in Fitzroy the son of a sculptor and architectural modeller. His father supervised the architectural ornamentation on Victoria’s Parliament House and in 1888 Bertram Mackennal did two panels for Parliament House. Mackennal became Australia’s first international star artist exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon and doing portraits of British kings.

If Mackennal were alive today he would not be a sculptor. He would have been making pop music, films or something where good money can be made by a talented hard worker.

Bertram Mackennal, Sir William John Clarke Memorial, 1902

Bertram Mackennal, Sir William John Clarke Memorial, 1902

In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century working class stonemasons could see their sons become upper class gentlemen sculptors. The economic power of craftsmen skills is a major factor in breaking down European class system from the Renaissance to the present. The working class lad who became a gentleman, or even a knight, because they were very hard working and very talented.

The stonemasons that built Melbourne, cutting, carving and decorating its buildings had plenty of work for stonemasons and so many could afford to pay for their sons to be better educated and the industrial muscle to demand better working conditions. It was the power of the stonemasons union that could demand an eight hour day in April 1856.

Stanford Fountain

                       Stanford Fountain

Charles Summers and William Stanford were both the sons of Somerset stonemasons who had apprenticeships in stone masonry before coming to Australia for the gold rush. Stanford was more impulsive than Summers. He was sentenced to 22 years for highway robbery and horse stealing completing his fountain in 1870 while still in Pentridge Prison.

Charles Summers had already got his lucky break when he had become an assistant to an English sculptor. After finishing the Burke and Wills Monument in Melbourne Summers moved to Rome where he established a sculpture business, a business that he passed on to his son. Summers sculpture business in Rome sold more sculpture to the Melbourne Public Library and, also to George Lansell, the “Quartz King” of gold rush Bendigo. When Lansell was in Rome he specifically visited the Summers factory where he purchased a considerable number of sculptures.

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865

Paul Montford was the son of a sculptor and stonemason and his brother continued his father’s stone mason business in London. He employed many stonemasons and amongst them was Stanley Hammond who went on to become a sculptor himself continuing this tradition well into the twentieth century in Melbourne.

The end of sculpture as a family business marks a change in attitude to sculptors and sculpture and art in general. Art as a family business was common for centuries, three generations of the Bruegel family painted just as two generations of the Summers or Montford families sculpted. Art changed from a trade with apprenticeships to a vocation, from a matter of situation and birth to a question of character.

Hidden Gem in Cemetery

The Springthorpe Memorial, completed in 1901, is one of Melbourne’s hidden gems, not rhinestones but an over-the-top extravagant diamond from the late-Victorian era. In 1933 the Argus praised it as “the most beautiful work of its kind in Australia”.


When in 1897 Annie Springthorpe died giving birth to her fourth child, her husband  Melbourne prominent doctor and art collector, John Sprinthorpe was grief stricken. They had only married for ten years; privately he poured his heart out in his diary. Publicly to commemorate her he commissioned the most impressive memorial in Melbourne at the Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew.

No expense was spared. Dr Springthorpe assembled the all star team of his time: architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear, sculptor Bertram Mackennal and landscape gardener William Guilfoyle. Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865-1933) was an admirer of Ruskin and his most well known work in Melbourne is the Church Street bridge, Richmond (1924). William Guilfoyle (1840-1912) was a landscape gardener and botanist who, in 1873 became the first curator of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Sir Bertram Mackennal was Australia’s international superstar sculptor of his time. Although Mackennal was born in Fitzroy he was equally at home in England where he sculpted portraits of British royalty. Melbourne residents many know his friezes on Parliament house, his statue of Circe, 1893 in the NGV or his memorial to Edward VII in Queen Victoria Gardens.


A gate with a shield creates an entrance way to the small landscaped area around the Springthorpe Memorial in the very crowded space of the cemetery. There is a small areas around the memorial with a few seats and some trees.


The stain glass roof of the memorial gave the white marble statuary an unreal red glow. The large dome of red glass in a scale pattern reminded me that the snake as an ancient symbol of eternal life because the snake sheds its skin. The snake motif is repeated in the water spouts on the roof.


There are so many loving words all over the memorial. On the tiled floor and bronze words in Ancient Greek around the inside of the entablature and English on around outside.


Mackennal’s complex three figure group consists of a full length portrait of Annie Springthorpe laid out on a Roman style sarcophagus and surrounded by angles. The angel hovers over the tomb floating on a marble nimbus; the idea of carving a nimbus out of marble strikes me as absurd, trying to carving rock to look like vapour.


There are a few other mausoleum worthy of architectural note at the Boroondara Cemetery including a gothic-revival chapel and an Egyptian-revival temple with fantastic detailing. And there are a few other tombstone carving worthy seeing including a tomb with a bonze dog on top reminiscent of the famous tomb in Highgate cemetery tomb of bare knuckle Tom Sayers, guarded by a carving of his faithful dog. But the Springthorpe memorial is over the top in its grief, opulence and luxury, it is a five handkerchief experience.


Public Sculpture & the collective consciousness

Why do I write about Melbourne’s sculpture? Most art critics and art historians are not interested in a collection of bad to mediocre art but I am because public sculpture shows the collective consciousness of the city. Love it or hate it public sculpture says something about the identity of the city. The taste of homogenous consensus maybe bland, even ugly, but to those in power it is acceptable. Public sculpture is concerned with the perpetration and manipulation of memory and space in collaboration between artists and city councils.

The idea of a collective consciousness was invented by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to refer to the public expression of shared beliefs and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. A collective consciousness is like a public superego exhibiting the ideals that the public aspire to. It tries to tell the official history or represent the shared values and aspirations of a culture. It is different from a ‘zeitgeist’ because it is intentionally expressed.

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

Public sculptures because of their durability are excellent representations of the collective consciousness. Public sculpture is the collective consciousness of a city exposed in something like an archaeological cross section with all the layers clearly defined by the commission and installation dates. From the 19th through to the 21st century, from Melbourne’s first public sculpture, Charles Summers’s River God Fountain to the very latest Laneway Commissions.

Melbourne is of a similar age to many cities and what has happened with Melbourne’s public sculpture is representative of many former British colonial cities around the world, including in the USA. Melbourne’s sculpture initially was part of the English art tradition. In the 19th century the English and Australian establishment were essentially the same; Australian sculptors trained at the Royal Academy or the Royal College of Arts. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal was born in Australia and lived in England, India and Australia.

Public sculpture reflects the way that the city is understood. It is an image for the city, an expression of civic pride and the idea of civic good. Originally a public sculpture was intended records a triumph, to memorialise ownership, to preserve and glorify the memory of a king, queen, general or hero. The height of plinths was an indication of the glory of the heroic sculpture. During Melbourne’s history plinths, the architectural support for the sculpture, have become smaller or disappeared completely.

Melbourne has changed as dramatically from the small settlement founded in 1835 that used horses as transportation to a large modern metropolis. During that time there have been many changes to the way that people use public space, the way that people think about Melbourne, their values and aspirations. There has been major political changes, Australia changed from a British colony to a separate country. Given these dramatic changes in the city and its infrastructure it would be surprising if public sculpture hadn’t changed equally dramatically.

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

Steaphan Paton, Urban Doolagahl, Melbourne City Council Laneways Commissions 2011

There is another cross section of the work of sculptors in the foyer of the NGV at Federation Square with a selection of busts by local sculptors over the 20th Century. Many of the sculptors were familiar to me because of their public sculptures in Melbourne – Paul Montford, Bertram Mackennal and Web Gilbert. The busts are not arranged chronologically but the layers of different styles are still clear. It is like looking at a series of stone tools from an archaeological dig; there are same basic forms with modifications and changes in techniques and materials.

Horses & Generals

Even though classical art had survived centuries and represented eternal values eventually the classical image could no longer be sustained amidst all of the changes the modern world. The archaic robes of a judge or a city councilor would have to be updated to modern fashion. A general could no longer be represented on horseback, like the Roman Emporor, Marcus Aurelius, because generals no longer rode horses. You can see the end of classical art in Melbourne in two statues, both of generals, and both located, not far from each other in the Kings Domain Park.

Bertram Mackennal, George VII Memorial, 1920

The sculptors of these memorials are closely connected. There is a tradition of master and studio assistant that runs through the lives of William Leslie Bowles (1885-1954) and Raymond “Ray” Boultwood Ewers (1917-1998). Bowles trained in England attending night classes at South London School of Sculpture and at the Royal Academy. During the day he worked there with several sculptors, including Bertram Mackennal. In Mackennal’s studio Bowles assisted with the large public monuments, including the equestrian statues of King Edward VII for Melbourne.

When in 1937 William Bowles won the competition to create a memorial to Sir John Monash Commander in Chief of the Australian Forces, World War I. Bowles proposed the classical form for a military man, a bronze equestrian statue on a granite pedestal. The bronze statue of Monash was cast in Italy prior to the outbreak of WWII but only finally completed and installed in 1950.

William Leslie Bowles, Sir John Monash Memorial

William Leslie Bowles, Sir John Monash Memorial, 1950

There are many similar equestrian statues like the, nearby equestrian statue of the Marquis of Linlithgow by William Birnie Rhind that was unveiled in 1911. But the Monash Memorial is even more like the equestrian statues of King Edward VII that he had worked on with Bertram Mackennal further along St. Kilda Road.


A decade later, Ray Ewers depicted Sir John Monash’s contemporary, Sir Thomas Blamey not on horseback but in a jeep. Although Blamey’s wife wanted an equestrian statute, this was now too obviously archaic for both the sculptor and the committee commissioning the sculpture.

Ray Ewers, Sir Thomas Blamey, 1960

Ray Ewers was trained in sculpture at the Working Men’s College in Melbourne from 1936 to 1940. Bowles had selected Ewers as an assistant and Ewers had assisted him with the Sir John Monash Memorial. And when poor health stopped Bowles work for the War Memorial, he asked that his former assistant, Ray Ewers complete it. Ewers also made the “Australian Serviceman” at the Australian War Memorial sculpture garden in Melbourne.

Without the classical form to work from the Blamey Memorial, 1960 is simply big and ugly. The memorial is a bronze grossly oversized figure standing in part of an army jeep instead the tradition of an equestrian statue. The part of the jeep is shown exploded, as in a 3D technical drawing, rather than anything dramatic. The figure’s pose is stiff, military and not in the least classical. The granite plinth emphasizes the rectangular shape of the statue.

The statue could be described as ‘realist’, not the revolutionary 19th Century realism of Manet and Courbet, more like the 20th Century National Socialist Realism of Nazi Germany or the Socialist Realism of Stalinist Soviet Union. The realism and classicalism promoted by Nazi Germany cast a long shadow across sculpture in this styles in Europe but evidently had little impact in Australia.


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