Tag Archives: architectural ornamentation

Victorian Architectural Ornamentation

I have been looking at all the ornamentation on Victorian buildings. The keystones with heads, the corbels scroll brackets, the flower shaped patraes and the plethora of other embellishments, like over decorated wedding cakes, on nineteenth century buildings. Now in the twenty-first century they are in varying states of repair, some crumbling away.

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I am amazed that I haven’t heard about some concrete pineapple or other orb becoming dislodged and crashing onto a roof. Do have a metal armature supporting them? There is so much about these ornaments that I don’t know.

Given that I see these ornaments every day I am struggling to even to learn the vocabulary to describe them. They are so alien after the modernist world. Where John Ruskin might have endorsed ornamentation, the architect Alfred Loos declared decoration a crime.

Who made these things?

Some of these architectural ornaments were made by Colin Young Wardrop, who also taught modelling and woodcarving at Geelong College, and William C. Scurry. Both men were on the council of the Yarra Sculptors’ Society.

Ken Scarlett’s Australian Sculptors has details on William C. Scurry.

“Messrs Wardrop and Scurry, Sculptors, Modellers, and Fibrous Plaster Manufacturers, 48 and 69 Arden Street, North Melbourne. This business was established in 1892, and since that date has made rapid strides in advancement. Messrs. Wardrop and Scurry have been large contractors for the principal decorative work in the city and suburbs, the principal buildings entrusted to their care being the Princess Theatre, the Theatre Royal, Opera House, Federal Coffee Palace, the Queen’s Walk, and numerous other places of interest in Melbourne.”

“The firm also executed the group of Justice and the other ornament for the Bendigo Law Courts, also the group of figures for the Bendigo Art Gallery. They were the first to introduce fibrous plaster for decorative purposes in Victoria, and in this class of work they certainly excel, as may be seen from the interior decoration of the Princess Theatre and Opera House” (p. 585)

It is uncertain when William Scurry’s father arrived in Melbourne but what is know is that in 1856 Scurry’s uncle, James Scurry was working with Charles Summers and John Simpson MacKennal. James Scurry was producing decorations for the interior of Parliament House on Spring Street including the two figures, Mercy and Justice, on the north side of the Legislative Council Chamber. Charles Summers went to create the Burke and Will Monument. John Simpson MacKennal was the father of Sir Bertram Mackennal, who became Australia’s first international superstar artist.

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Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne


Sculpture vs. Architecture

Architects, rather than sculptors have created many of Melbourne’s memorials and public sculptures. This is not a recent development, it has been going on for a century; a firm of architects, Irwin and Stevenson created Melbourne’s art deco Boar War Memorial, on the corner of St Kilda and Domain Roads, in 1924. Architects and designers often compete with sculptors for the same commissions for public sculpture.

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

Bertram McKennel, Victoria Parliament House, 1888

In the 19th Century it was different, architecture created commissions for sculpture rather than competed with it. Classical inspired architecture requires bas-relief and other sculptural ornaments. From the figures at the tops of buildings to the Corinthian columns with their stylised Acanthus leaves on their ornate capitals they all had to be designed and carved.

And in the 19th Century many sculptors in Melbourne worked producing architectural ornamentation. Paul Montford was part of the New Sculpture movement that tried to emphasis the connection between sculpture and architecture. In 1888 Bertram Mackennal created two allegorical reliefs depicting industry, commerce, arts and agriculture for the façade of Victorian Parliament and the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. Mackennal’s father, an architecture modeller and sculptor had also worked on figures and decorations for Parliament under the supervision of Victoria’s first public sculptor, Charles Summers.

In the modern era along the disappearance of sculptural ornamentation in architecture there was a change in how sculptors saw themselves. No longer supporting architecture modern sculptors saw themselves mini-architects with the same ambitions to create formal 3D shapes. It was an odd move world public sculptures were seen as a means of ameliorating the aesthetic effect a functionalist a modern building. Public art was expected to humanize the alienating undecorated architecture with an artistic gesture.

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III", 1988

Robert Juniper, “Shadow Form III”, 1988

Now Melbourne has an increasing use of architectural forms in the decoration of freeways, roundabouts and buildings. The stark minimalism of the modern era has gone and now sculptors are expected to work in collaboration with the architect from the start of the project.

Denton Corker and Marshall (DCM) is a Melbourne firm specializing in architecture and urban design. DCM’s work can be seen all over Melbourne from the Melbourne Museum to the Web Bridge in Docklands. Ron Robertson-Swann’s statue haunts DCM like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, because they had designed the city square and championed the sculpture. DCM’s “City Gateway” in Flemington is a reference to Vault. Like Vault the big yellow beam is better known by other nicknames – “the cheese stick”.

However the competition between sculptors and architects has lead to resentment by Melbourne sculptors. William Eicholtz argues that architects have pushed the art, especially sculpture, out of Melbourne’s urban/suburban environment. Another Melbourne sculptor, Anton Hasell was able to explain why architects have an advantage over sculptors in applying for public commissions; architects firm has the computing power and in-house graphic design to make their applications standout compared to a sculptor’s application.

Is public sculpture a subset of architecture, itself a subset of design? Or is there something that the art in the sculpture brings that should not be confused with architecture and design?


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