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Tag Archives: Ray Ewers

The sculptor and the swan

Like many sculptors in twentieth century Melbourne Raymond Boultwood “Ray” Ewers (20 August 1917 – 5 June 1998) made a lot of memorials in his life. And along with a memorials to President John F. Kennedy in 1965 and the fascist Sir Thomas Blamey in 1960 Ewers made a small memorial to a black swan.

The black swan named Cookie frequented the Alexandra Gardens until it was killed in an accident in 1973. The memorial drinking fountain that Ewers made is located at the end of Boathouse Drive beside the footpath by the Yarra River. The bluestone rectangular fountain still works; I drank from it on the weekend. (I hate bottled water! There is no need to carry water around in Melbourne as there are many drinking fountains.) There is a small bronze plaque on the fountain with a bas-relief image of a swan. The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Cookie the black swan, who lived in these gardens from 1967–1973’. 

Drinking fountains were a popular form for memorials in Melbourne combining a sculptural form with a practical purpose (for more about Melbourne’s drinking fountains). There was some debate about the memorial as the City of Melbourne records (Outdoor Artworks, October 2009, PDF) indicate that there was a suggestion to make a domed marble and granite drinking fountain (c.1936) in Queen Victoria Gardens Cookie’s memorial. Searching Trove did not provided any further information, there were no newspaper reports about the accident that ended Cookie’s life or the decision making process that led up to the drinking fountain.

Although the memorials indicate that someone wanted to pay a sculptor to make a permanent image, they tells you almost nothing about the sculptor. I see the same facts repeated about Ray Ewers; born in the northern Riverina, an RMIT graduate, and assistant to William Leslie Bowles. I’m not writing this because I think he was an important sculptor or created beautiful things; I don’t even like his sculptures. I know nothing about Ewers as an individual and he is as much of an alien mystery to me as Cookie the black swan.

Ewers worked at a time when there were many lacunas in Melbourne’s public art, the empty years with few commissions. Absent sculptural commissions are difficult to see because they aren’t there but they are there. There are many of these absent commissions. The decade long gap in the wake of the Vault (aka The Yellow Peril) controversy. The empty plinth, now used for Plinth Projects, in Edinburgh Gardens. The lone bronze statues of colonials on Swanston Walk or in St Kilda that were intended to have companions.

Cookie, the black swan memorial drinking fountain

In the 1930s Melbourne’s public sculptures were neglected and ignored. In The Argus (Thursday 1 Dec 1938 p.3)  “Staring at Statues, The Figures of the Great” Gordon Williams looked at Melbourne’s public sculpture; not that there was much to look at. “I believe that a poor statue about the place is better than no statue at all.” Leslie Bowles was quoted; a sculptor who would say something like in the hope of another commission. For decades many local city councils in Melbourne took Bowles advice and installed many poor sculptures.

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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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