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Public Sculptures – a tourists guide

Public Sculptures in Melbourne by Gera Tonge and Stanley Hammond M.B.E. is a 24 page pamphlet printed on green A4 paper, folded to A5 size, and bound with two staples. Published around 1985 it is a fascinating time slice through the history of Melbourne’s public sculpture. Thanks to William Eicholtz for this generous little gift.

Basically the pamphlet contains two pages on “Methods and materials used in producing public sculpture”, a list of 100 sculptures, a map of their locations and biographies of  some of the sculptors. It is illustrated with black and white photographs of some of the sculptures.

As a subtitle the pamphlet declares that it was intended as “a tourists guide”. The map is divided into three locations that are suggested “as a walking guide” “which can each be explored easily on foot.”

  1. Spring Street, East Melbourne and Fitzroy Area
  2. The City, University and Exhibition Buildings Area
  3. Kings Domain, Shrine and St. Kilda Road Area

Several sculptures are no longer in their original locations, others have moved and the total number of sculptures in these areas has doubled in the thirty years since the pamphlet’s publication.

It appears to be self published. Although there is no date it is after the move the Vault to the banks of the Yarra 1983. The controversy over Vault piqued Melbourne’s interest in public sculpture and may have been an additional motivation for publication.

Stanley Hammond knew the history of sculptures in Melbourne because he had lived it most of it. Born in Trentham Stan had started off as a stone mason working on the Shrine Remembrance before becoming one of Orlando Dutton and then Paul Montford’s assistants. Hammond made many war memorials during his career, including the lions at the Boer War Memorial on St. Kilda Road. He also made the figure of John Batman near the corner of Collins and Market Streets.


And it was all Yellow

Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture, “Vault” (aka the Yellow Peril) was only in the Melbourne City Square for a year but it haunts Melbourne like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. The sculpture certainly haunts the architects DCM who choose it. It was only in the City Square for a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. The sculpture has been the subject of endless discussion when it was completed and Wallis wonders why Melbourne became so obsessed with this sculpture. Wasn’t there anything more important to talk about in Melbourne?

“I actually think Melbourne is better off than Sydney, because of the experience of Vault. Vault was a public issue, and I think Melbourne is a lot more sophisticated as a result of these arguments being aired, over a long period of time.” Ron Robertson-Swann, Oct. 2002 (Carolyn Webb, “Melbourne’s mellow peril” The Age 3/10/02)

Vault has no meaning besides being art; it is simply an arrangement of yellow steel planes. The significance of it to Melbourne is the subject of the book.

The cast of characters spans Melbourne and clearly describes the conflict’s political dimensions.

For the sculpture: DCM (architects), Cr Ivin Rockman, Cr McAlpine, The Age, Eric Rawlison (director of the NGV), Professor Patrick McCaughey, Contemporary Art Society, Norm Gallagher (BLF)

Against the sculpture: Cr Don Osborne, Cr Jack Woodruff, The Sun, Premier Ruper Hamer, Bert Newton, Australian Guild of Realist Artists, Peter Thorley (chief commissioner of Melbourne)

Wallis does note that the conflict was as much aged-based as it was one between the left and right. It was Cr Osborne who popularised its derogatory nickname – “the yellow peril”. As well as, covering the controversy, Wallis comprehensively examination of the whole process from the competition for the commission, the commission and construction, the Melbourne City Council politics and the public reaction, the dismantling, removal and exile to Batman Park.

It is interesting to note that BHP contributed to the cost of the steel for Vault. That with a larger budget for the sculpture the City Square might have had a Henry Moore or Hans Arp sculpture. And that if the budget had been smaller friends of Montsalvat sculptor Matcham Skipper might have been able to pay for a place for him in the City Square.

Wallis looks closely at the reactions of the public to the sculpture, not in just the newspaper’s letters to the editor page. He looks at people climbing it, graffiti, homeless sleeping under it. The way that people moved around the sculpture was part of the commission and part of the concern of its critics.

The controversy over “Vault” extended the conservative position on Melbourne’s public sculpture. Long after their experience with “Vault” Melbourne City Council shunned any public sculpture commissions, paralyzed by fear of another controversy. The little good that came out of the whole incident was that it started the push that eventually the federal government introduced legislation protecting the moral rights of artists.

The book is well written and attractively laid out – I like the side texts that expanded the history through sidetracks. The book also features lots of great photographs, cartoon clippings from newspapers and other evidence of sculpture’s significance in Melbourne. And there is sort of a happy ending to look forward to as the sculptor and the people of Melbourne finally accept “Vault” in its new location outside of the ACAG.

Geoffrey Joseph Wallis, Peril in the square: the sculpture that challenged a city, (Indra Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1920787003, 9781920787004

Penny Webb reviewed Peril in the Square (The Age 14/5/04)


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