Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis: 3rd October

October 2nd, 2014 | C. J. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, Sunnyside, Web Gilbert

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.

John-Garibaldi-Roberts

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.

Matthew Flinders

4 responses to “Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis: 3rd October”

  1. Patsy says:

    Thankyou Stephen, I was delighted to read stories of these early Australian artists and their inter relationships. Much has been made of Heidi but these stories of Sunnyside and The Singing Gardens need to be kept alive. Well done.
    I look forward to ongoing publications from you as our President.
    (You’re a natural and gifted storyteller)
    Looking forward to seeing you at the Festival.
    Patsy

  2. Mac Craig says:

    Stephen,
    What an arresting way of sharing the knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *