Harold Herbert’s Corner
The Australian poet C. J. Dennis completed the writing of ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ in a tram car (strictly speaking a horse-drawn omnibus) on the property of Garry and Roberta Roberts, ‘Sunnyside’, in what was then South Sassafras, but is now known as Kallista.
The Roberts created something of an artists’ colony at ‘Sunnyside’. Robert worked for the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company. Both he and his wife, Roberta, were keen patrons of the arts, and encouraged many writers and artists to visit their weekend retreat. When the homestead proved inadequate to accommodate them all, Roberts arranged for horse-drawn omnibuses that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology to be taken to ‘Sunnyside’ and placed in the paddocks around the house. It was here that Dennis lived – and wrote – for a period of time.
Among those who visited were Hal Gye, who illustrated most of Dennis’ books, the cartoonists David Low and Percy Leason, the sculptor Web Gilbert, the etcher John Shirlow and, amongst many others, the artists Alick McClintock and Harold Herbert.
Looking for information about ‘Sunnyside’ amongst the digitised newspapers on the National Library’s ‘Trove’ recently, I was both stunned and charmed to find this beautiful series of sketches of cathedrals, churches and schools by Herbert. They were published in a newspaper I had not heard of before, ‘The Australasian’, under the heading ‘Harold Herbert’s Corner’. They appear to have been published, on a more or less weekly basis, in the last year of his life. (Herbert was born on 16.09.1891 and died on 11.02.1945.) ‘The Australasian’ ceased publication in 1946.
All of the sketches are accompanied by a few explanatory sentences. In a few cases, there are the words only, and no sketch at all. A few were published following his death, though in these cases the headline ‘Harold Herbert’s Corner’ was not used. Herbert was best known as a watercolorist. He also became a highly acclaimed war artist. I expect that these sketches are regarded as a fairly minor part of his overall artistic output, but I thought they were fascinating in their own right. No doubt the collection I am posting here is incomplete.
St James’ Old Cathedral, Melbourne (15.04.1944)
St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne (06.05.1944)
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne (13.05.1944)
St Peter’s College, Adelaide (20.05.1944)
St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Adelaide (27.05.1944)
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney (03.06.1944)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (10.06.1944)
St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane (17.06.1944)
St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane (24.06.1944)
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Bendigo (08.07.1944)
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat (22.07.1944)
All Saints Church of England, Bendigo (29.07.1944)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth (05.08.1944)
St David’s Church of England Cathedral, Hobart (12.08.1944)
Wesley Church, Melbourne (02.09.1944)
Independent Church, Melbourne (09.09.1944)
Christ Church Cathedral, St Arnaud (16.09.1944)
St Paul’s Cathedral, Sale (23.09.1944)
Church of Christ, Melbourne (30.09.1944)
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta (07.10.1944)
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sale (14.10.1944)
Baptist Church, Collins Street, Melbourne (28.10.1944)
Web Gilbert and Buddhism
I’ve been asking myself for a while how the sculptor Charles Web Gilbert, born in central Victoria in 1867, came to acquire an interest in Buddhism.
Specifically, he was born in Cockatoo, near Maryborough, roughly halfway between Bendigo and Ballarat, so it is reasonable to assume he had at least some contact with the Chinese community which was living on the Victorian goldfields at the time. Some friends recently convinced me that this is where his interest came from.
However, giving it some further thought over the weekend, I am not so sure.
I am now inclined to think the answer lies elsewhere.
To quote Wikipedia, on the subject of “Buddhism in Australia”:
“In 1891 the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, came to Australia and participated in a lecture series, which led to a greater awareness of Buddhism in small circles of mainly upper-class society. One of the members of the Theosophical Society was future Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who had spent three months in India and Sri Lanka in 1890 and wrote a book which discussed spiritual matters, including Buddhism.”
Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Either way, it seems to me highly likely that Gilbert came into contact – either directly or indirectly – with the teachings of Olcott.
1891, of course, was a seminal year in Australian history. It was the year of the first of the famous shearers’ strikes, which pitted union and non-union shearers against each other as wool prices fell with the coming of the Depression. This was the political backdrop against which Lawson and Paterson wrote, and which led ultimately to the formation of the Australian Labour Party.
I have mentioned before that Gilbert and Lawson were both born in the same year so, perhaps, while Lawson was becoming increasingly involved in the shearers’ cause, Gilbert was learning about Buddhism. Of course, Gilbert could have been concerned about the shearers’ plight also. I have no evidence about this one way or another. (C. J. Dennis, incidentally, turned 15 in September 1876. It is probably reasonably safe to assume he wasn’t particularly concerned with either the shearers or Buddhism at the time.)
So why did Gilbert choose to submit a Buddhist sculpture as his contribution to the Springthorpe Memorial for the Kew Cemetery in the late 1890s? My suspicion is that there was a touch of mischief on his mind, and that he more than half expected it to be rejected – as indeed it was.
The lyrics to “The Ballad of 1891” can be found here:
Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis: 3rd October
It occurred to me it might be fun to make occasional blog entries based on significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis (now that I am President of the C. J. Dennis Society!).
The first of these would appear to be 3rd October.
In fact, it is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, it is the birthday of John Garibaldi (“Gary”) Roberts, who was born in Scarsdale, near Ballarat, in 1860. Roberts and his wife, Roberta (nee Dickson, born in New Zealand), were keen patrons of the arts. Gary and Roberta bought a hobby farm, “Sunnyside”, in what was then South Sassafras, and is now Kallista, in the Dandenong Ranges, in order that their son, Frank, who had become disenchanted with life as a bank worker, could try his hand on the land. They also ran it as an “artists’ colony”.
Roberts held a senior position in the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, and was wealthy. He arranged for a number of the old horse-drawn tram cars that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology to be taken to “Sunnyside” as accommodation for his many visiting friends.
It was in one of these tram cars, renovated especially for him, that Dennis finished the writing of his masterpiece “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. Indeed, the character of the Bloke himself, becoming, as he does, a berry farmer at the end of the book, is modelled partly on Frank Roberts. (It was also Frank who supervised the arrival of the tram cars, and arranged for their renovation.)
It is also worth noting that Dennis wrote “The Play” – possibly the greatest of all his poems – very shortly after his first visit to “Sunnyside”.
Dennis was largely estranged from his own family, and Gary and Roberta became, for a while at least, like an alternative family for him. Indeed, he called them “Mum” and “Dad”, and dedicated “The Sentimental Bloke” to them. (Some years later, and with some justification, Gary felt that Dennis had “dropped” them.)
The painter, Tom Roberts (no relation) was also an occasional visitor to “Sunnyside”, and he painted a portrait of Gary.
So much for the first reason why 3rd October was a significant date in the life of C. J. Dennis.
The second reason relates not to a birth, but a death – it is the date of the death of Charles Web Gilbert.
Gilbert was a sculptor – self taught – who was born at Cockatoo, near Maryborough, in 1867 (the same year as Henry Lawson). He initially worked as a cake decorator, and developed from there to eventually working in marble, and casting in bronze. Gilbert was one of the “Sunnyside” regulars so, for a time at least, he must have been reasonably close to Dennis.
While the degree of his closeness to Dennis may be debatable, he was certainly close to the Roberts. He moved to London for a time before the outbreak of World War One and later, when Frank enlisted, Frank spent time staying in London with Gilbert.
Frank was tragically killed in the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, one month before the Armistice. Gilbert was commissioned by the Australian government to make a statue to commemorate this very famous victory – engineered by Sir John Monash – and he wrote to Gary that he planned to model the soldier on Frank. (The historian Peter Stanley, however, in his book “Men of Mont. St. Quentin”, questions whether this in fact happened.)
Gilbert created more war memorials than any other Australian. Not only was he self taught, but he was very much a “one man band”. In his studio in Napier Street, Fitzroy, he did all the work himself. This included wheeling heavy barrows of clay to make the original models, the creation of plaster casts that were laid over the clay, and the ultimate pouring of the liquid bronze into the plaster. Indeed, he died while wheeling a barrow on 3rd October, 1925, at the age of 58 (three years after the death of Henry Lawson).
So Gilbert died on Gary Roberts’ birthday.
Perhaps Gilbert’s best known sculpture is that of Matthew Flinders, situated outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Swanston Street, Melbourne. It was unveiled one month after his death.
The Helping Hand
Web Gilbert created nine war memorial sculptures – more than any other Australian.
Here is another, “The Helping Hand”, which is at Shepparton, in central Victoria.
It depicts a soldier, having just climbed up and out of a trench on the field of battle, turning to help a comrade out.
Like so many of Gilbert’s sculptures, it is shrouded in mystery.
The best article I have read about Gilbert is “Web Gilbert’s War Sculptures”, in the Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 70, No. 1, June 1999.
It has this to say about “The Helping Hand”.
“…it is scarcely believable, in spite of what he (Gilbert) says in his letter of 24 June 1922, that it depicts a real event. A charging man having just gone “over the top” would risk being shot in the back if he turned to help a comrade up. And a soldier unable to hoist himself out of the trench would likely not be much use as a fighter. Veterans would have known this – but Gilbert was not a veteran. The concept came, no doubt, from Gilbert’s creative imagination – which, of course, does nothing to detract from its value.”
Personally, I am not convinced that such an event could not have happened. Even my own limited reading about the First World War has taught me that far less likely things than this did indeed occur. Presumably, if the soldier had not turned around, he would have been shot in the chest. Does it really make that much difference?
To further boost Gilbert’s case, the following words are engraved upon a bronze plaque beneath the statue.
“The statue depicts…Pte John Raws reaching to help his brother Robert from trenches at St Quentin. Both were from Adelaide, and later killed in action at Pozieres.”
So, what to believe? I certainly don’t know.
The Australian Medical Association War Memorial
In 1921, the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association commissioned Web Gilbert to create “some moveable artistic work by an Australian now in Melbourne” in association with an honour roll. The Committee wished the sculpture to demonstrate “…a medical officer doing his duty to the fallen”. Initially, the request had come from the Returned Medical Officers’ Association. The sculpture was erected in 1923.
It was initially displayed at the Association’s offices in East Melbourne, but is now situated in a courtyard adjacent to the front entrance of the Australian Medical Association in Royal Parade, Parkville.
In preparing these notes, I am extremely indebted to an article, “Web Gilbert’s War Sculptures”, written by Donald Richardson, and published in the Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 70, No. 1, June 1999, pp 21 – 35.
I am also very grateful to the Australian Medical Association for allowing me to photograph this very moving sculpture.
It is hard to believe sometimes that these sculptures are modelled from clay, but this signature makes it very clear, and feels very immediate. It almost looks as though Gilbert has signed his name in the clay with a piece of stick.
The sculpture works so well from every angle.
Some finely observed detail.
The Wheel of Life
This is a complex story, with many layers.
Gilbert created a marble statue called “The Wheel of Life”. It depicts a Buddhist lama sitting beside a stream. “The Wheel of Life” has just fallen from his hands. Presumably, it is a metaphor for the folly of believing one can control one’s own destiny. It proved especially true in Gilbert’s case. The First World War came along and de-railed all his plans. That’s not the story I want to tell now, though.
And before I proceed further with the story I do want to tell, I have a question to ask. How did Web Gilbert, living in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, become familiar with Buddhism? I have read that the sculpture recalls Kipling’s Kim, but I am not sure in what way. (Admittedly, I have not read Kim. Perhaps if I had, it would be clear to me.)
Apparently, the sculpture was commissioned for the Springthorpe memorial in the Boroondara cemetery, but was considered “too eastern”.
John William Springthorpe was born in England in 1855 (the same year as Ned Kelly). He came out to Australia as a young child, and was educated here. He completed his medical degree at the University of Melbourne in 1879 (the same year that Ned Kelly wrote the Jerilderie Letter).
Springthorpe’s wife died in childbirth in 1897. He was stricken with grief, and created a mausoleum for her. Gilbert was commissioned to contribute to this. Why did Springthorpe choose Gilbert? And why did Gilbert think a statue featuring Buddhism would be appropriate?
Somehow, the statue found its way into the hands of three brothers, R. A., W. M., and A. S. Cudmore, nephews of Dr. Lilian Alexander. Dr. Alexander was one of the first women to graduate in Medicine in Australia. Upon her death, her nephews donated “The Wheel of Life” to the University of Melbourne as a mark of respect and gratitude for their aunt, who had acted as their friend and mentor.
So why was the statue acceptable to the Cudmores but not Dr. Springthorpe? And what did the university make of it? Apparently, it has been moved around several times during its life at The University of Melbourne. It is currently on display in the main foyer of the medical school building in Grattan Street. That is where I took these photos. (Being a graduate of Medicine at the University of Melbourne myself, this building is very familiar to me!)
In preparing this blog post, I have drawn heavily from three articles, as follows:
The Malvern Town Hall
To recap briefly, my interest in the sculptor Web Gilbert stems from my fascination with the life and works of the Australian poet C. J. Dennis. Both Dennis and Gilbert were beneficiaries of the extensive largesse of Garry and Roberta Roberts, renowned patrons of the arts, and both spent time at the Roberts’ “Sunnyside” retreat in the Dandenong Ranges. It can be assumed they were good friends – at least for a time.
This online biography of Web Gilbert is extremely helpful:
Amongst many other things, it tells us that Gilbert was responsible for the marble sculpture at the Malvern Town Hall.
However, you will not find Gilbert’s name mentioned on this sculpture. Instead, there stands the name of Paul Montford, an English born sculptor.
Gilbert died suddenly in 1925. At the time of his death, he was working on an Anzac memorial to be erected at Port Said, Egypt. It was completed by Paul Montford. Can we assume, then, that the Malvern Town Hall statue was also completed by Montford after his death? To support this theory, the statue is dated 1930, well after Gilbert’s death.
Towards the end of WW1 the Roberts’ oldest son, Frank, enlisted in the AIF. Frank was the live-in manager of “Sunnyside”, and was married at the time, to Ruby. Furthermore, Ruby was pregnant. Eventually, she would give birth to a girl, Nancy.
There was no pressure on Frank Roberts to volunteer for service. Single men were expected to enlist, but not married men. Nevertheless, he felt it to be his patriotic duty.
Web Gilbert was by now living in London, and Frank spent some time staying with him before heading off to the Western Front.
Tragically, Frank Roberts was killed at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, about a month before the signing of the Armistice. He never got to see his daughter.
This battle was one of General Sir John Monash’s most famous victories, and the sculptor, Web Gilbert, was commissioned to make a statue to commemorate it. Gilbert wrote to Frank’s father, Garry, telling him that he planned to model the soldier in the statue on Frank. However, the historian Peter Stanley has suggested that, for whatever reason, this may not in fact have actually happened.
The statue at the Malvern Town Hall is very interesting. On the left a young mother sits cradling a baby. On the right, a soldier stands, in full uniform, with face down. Am I drawing too long a bow to suggest that the figures on the left are Ruby and Nancy, and that on the right Frank?
Or is the sculpture really by Paul Montford after all?
I want to talk a little about Web Gilbert.
“Who is Web Gilbert?” you may well ask.
Gilbert was a sculptor, but perhaps I should go back to the beginning.
My favourite poet of all time is C. J. Dennis. Dennis was very much influenced by a small artists’ colony that was beginning to take shape in Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. (It wasn’t called Kallista then, though. It was known as South Sassafras.)
John Garibaldi Roberts and his wife Roberta owned a hobby farm, called “Sunnyside”. Roberts worked in various senior positions for the Melbourne Tramways Company, and was wealthy. He and his wife were also very enthusiastic and active patrons of the arts.
The Roberts invited many of their artist friends so stay with them at “Sunnyside”. When the house proved too small, they arrange for their son, Frank, who was managing the property, to tow a number of the horse-drawn omnibuses that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology up to “Sunnyside”, to be placed in the paddocks around the house.
C. J. Dennis was given his own omnibus, and it was here that he completed writing his masterpiece, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
Another frequent visitor to “Sunnyside” was Web Gilbert. Gilbert’s life ran in a rough parallel to Henry Lawson’s. They were both born in the same year. Gilbert died three years after Lawson, but they were both very young – Lawson 55, Gilbert 58.
Gilbert actually began as a cake decorator, but moved from there to sculpting. Initially he used marble, but later he discovered the wonders of bronze. Gilbert did everything himself, a real one man band. This meant carting his own clay in wheelbarrows to make the moulds to eventually pour the bronze into. I have read that he dropped dead suddenly one day while wheeling his barrow. He had a studio in Gore Street, Fitzroy.
I will talk more about Gilbert later, but the sculpture that he is best known for his the Matthew Flinders statue outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
How many people walk past this statue every day without giving it a second thought? I know I did for many years.
I still know very little about it. I rang the Melbourne City Council one day to find out more information, and they very apologetically explained that they also know very little. They pointed me to the Public Records Office. I haven’t had a chance to get there yet, but hopefully I will one day.
Sadly, Gilbert died before the Flinders statue was installed.
from a distance…
from a greater distance…(love the blue bike thingeys)
from upstairs window of McDonalds, across the road