Friday, April 11, 2014

Burke and Wills: The Roaming Statue

Burke and Wills are among the most famous Melbournians, yet neither was a local.

Both Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were British born and trained, the former as a policeman, the latter a surveyor. On 20 August 1860 they lead an expedition out of Melbourne to begin an attempt to cross the Australia from South to North, a previously unattained feat.

Ultimately, they were marching into history, as neither would return alive.

Melbourne would pay a number of tributes to these adopted, flawed characters, chief among them the statue erected in their honour on the corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets. But it is interesting to note that this statue has enjoyed it's own nomadic existence, and that it's current spot is the fourth it has occupied since it's casting.

The Burke and Wills statue; current location.

News of the passing of Burke and Wills was slow to reach Melbourne. Both explorers were dead by late June 1861, the exact date of their deaths is not known, but they had gone missing in one of the remotest parts of the country, if not the world, and no word of their end was initially available . The final surviving member of the expedition, John King, was not found until late September and it was not until the first week of November that the grim news finally reached Sydney and Melbourne.

The Argus reports the news, November 5, 1861.

The anguish in the city was pronounced.

The state government quickly decided that a prominent public tribute to the lost explorers was in order, and by February 1862 some 4000  pounds had been allocated for this purpose. It was to be the first statue of a public figure erected in Melbourne.

To settle on the design, a public competition was organised, to be overseen by University of Melbourne professor William Wilson. A public announcement from Wilson later in 1862 declared the competition open:

Five entries were submitted to the lucrative contest, but the clear favourite was always the submission of Charles Sumner. 

Sumner was a British born sculptor who had moved to Melbourne in 1852, following his brothers to the goldfields. But he found more success through his art, and was well known locally for the decoration he had supplied to the interior of the Parliamentary chambers on Spring Street. He established a studio on Collins Street, where he worked mainly on busts of Melbourne's burgeoning upper class. It is thought that his connections, and some behind the scenes lobbying, helped him secure the Burke and Wills commission.

As per the competitions instructions, Sumner submitted a plaster model of the statue, now held by the Royal Society of Victoria:

After he had claimed the prize and been awarded the commission, Sumner was requested to submit a second, larger, maquette, closer to the actual statue's to be completed size. This second model, sometimes thought to be the original competition entry, is on display in the Warrnambool Art Gallery:

It would take Sumner two years of work to turn his plaster models in to bronze, full size reality.

While casting work was ongoing, the Design Commission overseeing the project had a change of heart about the monument's prospective location. Originally set to be erected outside Parliament House on Spring Street, as per Wilson's announcement, the commission decided to consider other locations after a mock up of the statue was placed there and found to be somewhat overshadowed by the surrounding buildings.

The mock up statue was trialed at various spots around the city, including; the Botanic gardens, Carlton gardens, the State Library forecourt and Batman Hill (at this time the hill was still an open, public space). Eventually, the commission settled on the high ground at the intersection of Collins and Russell Streets, opting to place the statue in the middle of the crossroads.

The statue was completed early in 1865 and unveiled on April 21 of that year, to near universal acclaim.

Two views of the statue, in its original location.

After the unveiling, Sumner continued to work on the project, completing four bronze relief panels depicting scenes from the expedition which were added to the pedestal in 1866.

The statue was a popular addition to the top of Collins Street, but it's time in the location would be relatively short. As Melbourne continued to grow as a city, electric trams were added to the CBD in 1886, necessitating the removal of statue to allow the tramway clear passage.

It was then relocated close to its originally designated spot on Spring Street, now finding a home in Gillott's Reserve opposite State Parliament.

The statue on Spring Street.

Where it would remain for nearly a hundred years.

But in the early 1970's, transport infrastructure improvements would again force the statue to move. This time it was an expansion of the city's rail network that effected the statue, as the Government sought to add additional inner city stops. As Parliament station was being created deep under Spring Street, Gillott Reserve was swallowed up and the statue was moved to the south east corner of Carlton Gardens in 1973.

The statue in Carlton gardens.

But this was considered a rather obscure spot for one of the city's best known monuments. With the removal of the Queen Victoria Buildings on Swanston Street, and the creation of City Square, an opportunity was presented to bring the statue back into the centre of the city. This was done in 1979 (although to a slightly different position to the one it currently occupies).

But all of this nomadic wandering had come at a cost. By 1988, the statue had fallen into disrepair and Melbourne City Council had it removed for restoration, which was done at the Meridian Studios in Fitzroy.

Restoration work was completed in 1993 and the statue was placed in it's current location, where it has remained to date.

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