There is an expectation of sculptures adoring the university’s buildings and gardens and Melbourne University’s collection provides a unique view of the history of sculpture in Melbourne. (Macquarie University established a Sculpture Park in 1992.) The removal of the iron fence around the grounds in 19th Century meant that grounds of Melbourne University were open to the public. However, although the sculptures are on public display they are in the separate space of the university and have a different history to that of the Melbourne’s public sculptures. This is not a guide to Melbourne University’s sculpture for that see Lorinda Cramer and Lisa Sulivan’s Sculpture on Campus.
Sculptures at Melbourne University have accrued over time – there has been no over all plan. Brian Lewis (Foundation Professor of Architecture, 1947– 1971) was described by Ray Marginson as “an outstandingly successful ‘magpie’.” (“Impecunious magpies, or how to adorn a university with little ready cash – Ray Marginson, interviewed by Robyn Sloggett” University of Melbourne Collections, Issue 7, December 2010 Dr Ray Marginson was Vice-Principal of the University of Melbourne from 1965 to 1988.) This magpie aspect to the collection ties in with the earlier trend of ‘façadism’, as well as, Melbourne University’s outstanding collection of modern sculptures.
‘Façadism’ at Melbourne University is a struggle to accrue identity in the post-colonial new world, a kind of antiquarianism on a gigantic scale. It is a local version of the American multi-millionaires who moved whole European palaces across the Atlantic to feel more in touch with history.
The redevelopment of the city brought sculptures to Melbourne University. In 1890 the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the USA acquired northwest corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street. When Whelan the Wrecker demolished the building in 1959 and the group of bronze statuary that topped the entrance portico was donated to the University of Melbourne.
The sculpture depicts a sandal-shod Amazon giving succour to a widow with two children. It was modelled and cast in Vienna in 1893 and is similar to the sculpture that once stood at Equitable’s New York office. It was originally located at its new Architecture school at Mt. Martha but was relocated to the main campus in 1981.
In 1966 Whelan the Wrecker’s work provided more sculptures for Melbourne University when the Union Bank was demolished. Two figures meant to represent Great Britain and Australia, also known as Ada and Elsie. (Robyn Annear, A City Lost & Found, Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, 2006)
The gateway to the underground car park with figures by Percival Ball (1845-1900) was also saved from demolition.
The early appearance of abstract modern sculptures on the Melbourne University campus demonstrates the progressive university community compared to the rest of Melbourne. Inga King and Norma Redpath played a more important part in introducing modernist sculpture to Melbourne than Ron Robertson-Swann regardless of the brouhaha over Vault.
In 1980 Inge King‘s Sun Ribbon replaced a pond on the Union Lawn; it was what the university students wanted (Marginson p. 28). The sculpture is the gift of Mrs Eileen Kaye Fox in 1982 in memory of her parents Ernest and Fannie Kaye. In 1985 a group of students covered the sculpture in aluminium foil. Also by King on the campus is “Upward Surge” 1974–75 Steel Commissioned 1974 for the Institute of Early Childhood Development, Kew and installed in its current location in 2001.
The Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial by Norma Redpath 1970 (signed 1969-70) is a bronze capital on top of a black steel column. Prof. Sydney Dattilo Rubbo (1911-69) was the professor of Microbiology from 1945-69. Leading post-war sculptor Norma Redpath 69-73 studied sculpture at RMIT, 1953 was part of the ‘Group Four’ with Inge King, Julius Kane and Clifford Last. Other public sculptures by Redpath in Melbourne, the Facade Relief (1970–1972) at Victoria College of Pharmacy and the Victoria Coats of Arms (1968) on the front of the Arts Centre of Victoria.
Although Melbourne University has an good collection of sculptures featuring works by many notable sculptors and with examples from many different eras of sculpture, it is a peculiar collection that often picks up what others were casting aside.