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Tag Archives: Burke and Wills

The Burke and Wills Monument 1865 – 2015

Today is 150th Anniversary of the Burke and Wills Monument and both Melbourne and the monument have changed in the 150 years. Just after 4pm on 21 April 1865 the sculpture was unveiled in the middle of the Collins and Russell Streets intersection. The monument has been four different locations and these different locations show the history of Melbourne’s transportation with the introduction of trams, the city loop trains and the pedestrianised zone of the city square.

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument

Proudly Australian the monument was made from local materials; the bronze from tin mined in Adelaide and copper from Beechworth, and the imposing plinth is of Harcourt granite. The sculpture was cast in Charles Summers’s workshop in the east end of Collins Street, now the location of Burlington Chambers. The casting of the sculpture before an invited audience was a bit of a fraud. Summers claimed that the figures were cast in one piece, an impossible accomplishment and one that the sculpture’s restoration has revealed to be false. Pouring hot metal is a spectacular event but Summers felt the need to lie about how successful it went.

For a nineteenth century artist Summers worked hard at publicity. He was a celebrity as far as the Argos newspaper and Melbourne’s elite were concerned but what ever happened to its sculptor Charles Summers?

Researching my book, Sculptures of Melbourne, I couldn’t help feeling that Summers was a man who, in part, believed his own publicity. I think that really believed that he was Melbourne’s Michelangelo but he was a bit of a fraud and a show off. After basking in the glory of his monument Summers moved to Rome, after all if was Michelangelo then he belonged in Rome. In Rome he established a factory for producing sculptures that his son, also a sculptor took over after his death. Summers never returned to Melbourne but his son did and there are Victorian neo-classical marbles by the Summers factory in both the Bendigo and Geelong art galleries.

The monument is now an icon of Melbourne and Australian history, a preserved historic relic, the first work of public art to be registered by the National Trust. However, its anniversary has not been officially recognised. Along with attitudes to heroic deaths, ideas about public art have changed radically and I doubt that there are now many Australian parents who would follow Governor Darling’s prediction for the monument at its unveiling. “For, oft as it shall be told, and oft-times it will be told upon this very spot, Australian parents, pointing to that commanding figure, shall bid their young and aspiring sons to hold in admiration the ardent and energetic spirit, the bold self-reliance, and the many chivalrous qualities which combined to constitute the manly nature of O’Hara Burke.”

For more about the history of this and other public sculptures in Melbourne (and some better photographs) read my book, Sculptures of Melbourne.

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865, panel Dig tree

Charles Summers, Burke and Wills Monument, 1865, panel Dig tree

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Birrarung Wilam and other public art

The aboriginal population of this area didn’t have a say in the establishment of Melbourne. They were dispossessed, their land was declared empty and unowned and Australian law legally reduced them to being part of the fauna and flora. Consequently they rarely figure in Melbourne’s public sculpture, they were not part of the collective consciousness of Melbourne for most of its history. They were being officially ignored and neglected.

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Australian aborigines briefly appear on the bas-reliefs on the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers. The story of the expedition is told in four low relief panels around the base of the statue. Burke and Wills were unwilling to deal the local aboriginal people, the sole survivor John King was help by the Yandruwandha people and lived with them until found by the rescue mission. To prepare the panels Summers lived for six weeks with local aborigines to design the figures on the lower panel and depicts them as dignified, well-proportioned people.

This is the first time that aboriginal figures appear in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. After that public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population vanished. For over a century Aboriginal art and identity was official ignored. In the last twenty years it has slowly changed and there is public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population by indigenous artists.

Birrarung Wilam  shields

Birrarung Wilam shields

Amongst the new aboriginal art along the Yarra River in Burrung Marr there is Birrarung Wilam (meaning river camp) by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.

Made of stone, wood, stainless steel, bronze, nickel and audio installation, 2006, this is a complex installation with many elements. The twisting, textured eel path represents a major food source, the feminine mound “camp site” and the masculine the five metal shields along the riverfront. Marking the site’s eastern and western ends stand intricately carved hardwood message sticks, by Glenn Romanis, representing the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation. The metal shields by the river, representing the five clans of the Kulin Nation, were designed by Mandy Nicholson who also designed and helped carve the petroglyphs on the stones.

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

The performance space is magnificent even remembering that the stones were moved by machines and not by hand while remembering that these ancient British monuments are themselves reconstructions. The best part the ancestral stones the petroglyphs of animals carved on the stones. The monolithic carved ancestor stones are placed to form a semi-circular performance area. Unfortunately they are sort of hidden behind ArtPlay, the children’s arts centre next to a playground.

Birrarung Wilam may be a very large and complex work but it is still dwarfed by the scale of this riverside park. There is room for an entire north bank of the Yarra River and meeting up with the carved poles of Scar – a Stolen Vision (see my post).

Indigenous artist were also represented in 2011 the Laneways Commissions with an all indigenous year that included Reko Rennie Neon Natives, a neon light display, Yhonnie Scarce’s Iron Cross in Brien Lane, Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council: Judy Nicholson, James McFayden, Asley Firebrace-Kerr and Derek Smith is still up on a wall off Burke Street, and Urban Doolagahl by Steaphan Paton. Very few people in Melbourne would have heard of the Doolagahl before Steaphan Paton introduced them by his retelling of the story in an urban context revives an ancient tradition.

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council, off Burke St.

This public art publicly acknowledges the existences of Aboriginal Australia in Melbourne’s collective consciousness.


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