Tag Archives: Fitzroy Gardens

Statues of Women & Women Sculptors

There are few statues of notable Australian women in Melbourne. There are few public sculptures in Melbourne representing actual women, aside from nude idealized or symbolic women. For most of the 20th Century there were more memorials statues to British women, Queen Victoria and Nurse Edith Cavell, than Australians.

Ailsa O'Connor, Mary Gilbert Memorial, 1975 (2)

Ailsa O’Connor, Mary Gilbert, 1974

This was noted and in a small way rectified at the height of the women’s art movement in 1970s with the Mary Gilbert Memorial, 1974 by Ailsa O’Connor (1921-1980). The life-size cement fondue bust is in the Fitzroy Gardens Conservatory.

Ailsa O’Connor was teacher and a radical artist. O’Connor studied at both the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne University. She was a member of the Social Realist Group (along with Noel Counihan) and the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne (exhibiting in their 1942 Anti-Fascist exhibition). O’Connor joined the Communist party in 1944 and was a founding member of the Union of Australian Women in 1953. She represented Victoria at the World Congress of Women in Copenhagen in 1953. O’Connor taught at Brunswick Technical School where one of her students was Leonard French.

Ailsa O’Connor had done her research into women in early Melbourne and found Mary Gilbert the first European woman to live in Melbourne and the mother of the first European child born in the settlement. O’Connor’s imaginary portrait of Mary Gilbert shows a clear influence of Käthe Kollwitz, a German Realist artist (1867-1945) in style of the head. Kollwitz a major influence on O’Connor’s throughout her life.

In 2012 a statue of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop by Julie Squires is installed at Melbourne general cemetery cemetery’s new St Mary of the Cross Mausoleum. The life size bronze statue depicts Mary MacKillop embracing a child. Julie Squires is a Melbourne-based sculptor educated at the Hunter Institute of Technology and Newcastle University who has also created the bronze “Horse “ (2008) located at Mordialloc Bay and a memorial sculpture to motoring icon Peter Brock (2008) in Bathurst.

There is a bust of Nellie Melba in Her Majesty’s Theatre, a Peter Corlett statue of Kylie Minogue in Docklands (removed in 2016) and statues of the women sprinters, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland-Delahunty at Gate 3 of the MCG. That seems to complete the survey. A mother, a nun and entertainers – all archetypal conventional roles for women; the conservative tradition of Melbourne has left little room for women and Australian women are hardly included in the official Australian identity as it is represented in public sculpture.


Oddities of Melbourne

Melbourne has Gothic Revival, Moorish Revival, Romanesque Revival and Venetian Renaissance Revival architecture and a Model Tudor Village. The end of the 19th century was so into retro revivals they make current retro styles appear prospective. And Melbourne is a place where the king tide of the eclectic architectural revivals of the 19th Century washed up. The round arches, belt courses of stone or brick are all features of Romanesque revival but Melbourne’s Romanesque revival has more decorative brick and tile work than it’s American counterparts. The architectural revivals tended to be more exuberant because there was still money from the Victorian gold rush around. Maybe this excess is one of the reasons why Melbourne was known as “marvellous Melbourne.”

Victorian Artists Society - Romanesque Revival building

I was standing around in the stucco covered foyer of the Forum Theatre in Melbourne after the Tripod show last year. The whole place, inside and out, is covered in this over the top, eclectic collection of styles from the faux Renaissance interior to the over the top Moorish Revival exterior. Amongst all this stucco there are plaster casts of classical sculpture from the Uffizi, Naples Museum and other Italian collections. These copies of statues were included in the original 1929 décor to contribute their aura of classical quality to the then new media of cinema. Unfortunately the plaster sculptures are now covered in a thick layer of acrylic paint.

It made me think what are the other art and architectural oddities there are around Melbourne. The typical list came to mind: Ola Cohn’s “Fairy Tree” in Fitzroy Gardens, William Ricketts Sanctuary in the Dandenongs, with its Australian romanticism carvings.

Model Tudor village in Fitzroy Gardens

Fitzroy Gardens is full of art and architectural oddities: there is Model Tudor Village, Captain Cook’s cottage transplanted from England and Ola Cohn’s Fairy Tree. The Model Tudor village – this is from another era when model villages were considered legitimate garden decoration. It is part of Australia’s colonial longing for England; even if it was represented in miniature scale.

detail Ola Cohn, "Fairy Tree" 1931-4

Melbourne sculpture, Ola Cohn carved her “Fairy Tree” between 1931-4. I have some sympathy with the fairy art obsession of the late 19th and early 20th century because of its respect for nature; Ola Cohn declares the place sacred “to all living creatures” on the inscription bronze plaque beside the tree. The tree is carved with images of Australian native fauna but all the fairies are European.

These things did not start life as oddities, they were intended to be mainstream even progressive, but the future expected by their creators didn’t happen and they now look oddly out of place. They have been caught in time lags and other psycho-temporal eddies and whirlpools such that their existence now appears disjointed from reality, the detritus of history washed ashore in Melbourne. They are not simply curiosities, these oddities demonstrates particular but irrelevant features of Melbourne’s past. But what do we do with these odd monsters? Hide them, ignore them and hope that they will go away or conserve these unsuccessful mutants?

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