“Margaret Francis Ellen Baskerville (1861-1930) was an artist, educator and Victoria’s first professional female sculptor. During her 50-year career she produced several notable works including the Alexandra War Memorial, Maryborough War Memorial, the Edith Cavell Memorial, the James Cuming, Footscray and the Ernest Wood Memorial Plaque, St Paul’s Cathedral. Margaret’s studio from where she created her sculptures was located in close vicinity to this lane.”
I was surprised to see the panel because, apart from a sculpture nerd like myself, would have even heard of Margaret Baskerville? Who else would care about an obscure turn of last century sculptor? The plaque is the work of the Victorian Women’s Trust, UEM Sunrise, a member of UEM Group, and Probuild. It is part of the art washing around the Aura tower construction site in the middle of the city.
It was on a wall in a lane so new that Google maps has not yet included it. It is on the north side of La Trobe Street, near the intersection of Swanston Street. The lane is part of a pedestrian detour over four times longer than the blocked footpath that has lasted many months. And this morsel of art history is to somehow ameliorate this inconvenience.
I am interested in Baskerville only because of her public sculpture. I didn’t know about the studio that plaque refers to or even how many studios Margaret Baskerville had in Melbourne over her career? When I last looked into it, I found that she had her studio in Collins Street. She married the painter and sculptor C.D. Richardson in 1914, and Richardson also had his studios conveniently located in Collins Street. Baskerville’s studio then was behind Assembly Hall in Collins Street; obviously, she had another studio near La Trobe Street at another time.
Maybe it was when she received her first public commission for the Thomas Bent statue. Tommy Bent was the kind of crooked politician and state premier that Australia is famous for, who corruptly enriched himself through public office. The kind who needs a larger-than-life statue to be impressive enough compared to their shortcomings. Originally, it stood at the Nepean Highway and Bay Street intersection in Brighton; it was moved to Bay Street in the 1970s.
Aside from being the first public commission given to a female sculptor in Victoria, the Bent statue is the first bronze sculpture in Australia to be welded together with an oxy-acetylene jet from cast pieces (before that, statues were riveted together). In the case of the Bent statue, there were over sixty pieces. Not that Baskerville did the welding or the casting (or the stone caving in later projects), her role in the project was to sculpt the clay model.
Baskerville found that Victoria’s first professional female sculptor was not always a disadvantage. She received the commission for the Maryborough War Memorial because the committee raising the money were all women and favoured giving the commission to a woman. And by the time she received her final commission for the Nurse Edith Cavell Memorial, she was not the only professional female sculptor in the state. By then, Ola Cohn was also at work.