Saturday, 25 March 2006

Statuary Friday #23 (Empire Games edition)

Blog project: documenting Melbourne's open-air public sculpture in words and pictures. Suggestions for future episodes are more than welcome.

Today's installment brought to you by the jolly old Empire Games!

#23 Queen Victoria Memorial

Queen Victoria Gardens, Linlithgow Avenue, Melbourne

The Queen Victoria Memorial sits on a kind of roundabout amongst promenades on top of a small hill in the Queen Victoria Gardens, a pretty flower garden tucked between the rambling King's Domain to the southeast and the low-lying Alexandra Gardens to the north. The area is chock-a-block with sculpture and statuary of various kinds; this elaborate memorial is one of the oldest, and I think one of the best.

At first glance the memorial, made by James White, looks alarmingly like some kind of trophy (perhaps one you'd win for being the century's champion World Dominator & popping out nine kids to boot.) On top of a circular granite platform with three rings of steps is a four-sided neoclassically modelled plinth decorated with female figures on each side and a column at each corner, and on top of that stands Victoria herself, stately and stern, mourning-veiled and miniature-crowned and robed and sashed, holding orb and sceptre, and gazing across the Yarra & Birrarung Marr to central Melbourne.

The memorial is placed on a grassy mound at the top of a hill, and the effect of these cumulative elevations is to make the thing look much bigger than it really is. This is particularly true of the Queen as you have to really struggle to get a good look at her: you may respectfully observe the Empress's entire person from a suitable distance, or cringe insignificantly at her feet. The figures are about one and one-quarter lifesize, which is about the same as the Redmond Barry statue outside the State Library and only a little bit smaller than the figures on the Burke and Wills monument. But the dramatic perspective makes Victoria look very much larger than life.

When you do find a vantage point that renders her visible to the commoners' eye, she looks like this:

The sun was setting on Melbourne when I took these pictures and its last rays set the white Carrara marble blazing. It's rare for a large public memorial statue in this city to be constructed of marble: bronze is the usual material. The whiteness of this monument is unlikely to be any kind of unintentional effect.

Supporting the globe on which Victoria stands is a cornice inscribed on each side with letters of gold spelling out the Queen's honorifics in Latin: VICTORIA DEI GRATIA etc. The cornice is held up by four polished Harcourt granite columns topped with darkened bronze capitals, sort of Ionic, but with a typically Victorian bit of overdecoration in the form of a tiny cherub's head poking out between the volutes. It's not fair to laugh at them for that sort of thing, they honestly couldn't help themselves.

On the flat between each column is a shallow arched niche with a bronze shell or fan form occupying the top hemisphere and a curved block pushing out from the bottom third. Under that is another deep panel with a bronze plaque in the centre. The plaques reminded me very much of the inscriptions at the Springthorpe Memorial which predates this monument (completed in 1907) by only a few years. A nice detail is the carving on each one of a thistle, a rose, and a shamrock.

Each arch frames a different allegorical female, garbed in loose (but not too loose) draperies, each one labelled with a different abstract concept and a different phase of Victoria's life, and accessoried accordingly.

This is 'Progress', and 'Born 1819':

She's shading her eyes and looking into the distance, and holding up a torch to light the way. Eager sort of girl. Nice puppies

Next is 'History', aka 'Married 1840'. What a remarkably interesting combination of ideas. This is the facet Victoria has her back to, by the way. It's tempting to look at this as some kind of proto-feminist statement about the irrelevance of Victoria's gender to her abilities, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that she was a prolonged and conspicuous mourner. The figure doesn't look like an enthusiastic bride. But she exudes a certain luxurious langorousness that might subtly suggest sexual maturity.

The third side belongs to 'Justice' and 'Died 1901'.

Justice carries her traditional attributes, the scales and the sword (the sword is broken, but you can see still holds the hilt.) She isn't blindfolded, though, which is interesting.

The fourth side, facing the same way as the Queen, is 'Wisdom' and 'Reign 1837-1901'.

I fell for Ms Wisdom in rather a big way, despite her facial expression which seems to communicate having inadvertently sat upon the Kohinoor Diamond. She's got a winged helmet, a stack of impressive books, an owl, and the sense to do up the front of her dress. Indeed it might be argued that she's taken things a touch too far in the 'camouflaging the bosom' department.

Dorian thought her chest looked like a still from Alien, and I agree with him. But still, the owl makes up for quite a lot:

It's hard to say whether Owl had its nose broken off by the same vandals who took away the sword and all the womens' toes, or whether it just forgot to put its dentures in. Never mind, it's still lovely.

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Rob said...

She's been one of my favourite statues in the Melbourne Parks for 30 or so years. I always make a point of giving her a visit when I'm in town (the fact that it's an easy walk from Flinders Street Station helps).

Did you know her head was blown off her shoulders by vandals in the late 70's? She was surrounded by scaffolding for years afterward whilst being repaired.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Agreed re Aliens and Wisdom's bosom (is that the Medusa, or Mnemosyne the Mother of the Muses, do you think?) but although she is overdoing the bosom-covering thing, I think the deployment of her legs and feet hints at an altogether more relaxed and comfortable, if not wanton, attitude to life. I love these pics, especially the Art Nouveau floral emblems in bronze.

Ampersand Duck said...

I adore the gummy owl. Some kind person needs to put a mouse or rat in his mouth

Val said...

Thanks for bringing this statue to my attention, I don't think I've ever seen/noticed it. In fact, even the placename King's Domain was not on my radar until I read about the Aborigines' alternative camp set up there during the Commonwealth Games.

Now that the hordes of visitors and their ugly games merchandise will be disappearing from the city with the closing of the games today, we Melbournians can again venture into our calm, stately, liveable city.

...oh dear, have I been ranting?

Val said...

Aargh! Lucy, you've been hit by the dreaded spam comments. You need to turn on word verification. Go Settings > Comments.

Lucy Tartan said...

Yuck, spammers, why do they bother...thanks Val, it's switched on now.

I had no idea the queen had her head knocked off. That's the problem with marble, it's brittle.

Yesterday evening we tried to go to the Bollywood night at the Myer Music Bowl but it was too full. On the way out we walked past the Stolenwealth camp. The campers are making sure everyone knows they are pissed off - standing at the perimeter we got told in no uncertain terms to keep moving. I felt kind of hurt but I can understand why they would be like that.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's a lovely account. Was this an off the peg number, or did some bedazzled colonial sculpt the thing?

- barista

Lucy Tartan said...

Well, hazarding a guess partly based on the very little I could find out about the sculptor (b Edinburgh 1862; d Australia 1918), I think it's very much a custom job adapted to local tastes. There are heaps of Victoria monuments around, like the big seated one in central Sydney, and they pretty much all conform to the iconography. The very recognisable face, the little crown and the mourning veil - that's Victoria.

I don't know how much it comes through in the photos, but the allegorical ladies are rather quirky creatures. Not Classical. I have no way of testing this hypothesis but I wondered how much certain features of this monument owe to the example of the Springthorpe memorial - ie, the columns, the inscriptions, the whole temple atmosphere. The timing is about right. Not that these ones aren't really nice, but Mackennal's figures are in a completely different register.

R H said...

Laura yesterday at SAVERS HALF PRICE SALE I saw a girl who looked exactly like your gravatar. I don't want to say too much about it except that it broke my concentration in the chaos of coat hangers flying everywhere and I got swotted by a flying pants suit. Serves me right. Anyway no one yet has chosen Queen Vic as a gravatar and I wonder why.

On Topic!

Lucy Tartan said...

Did you get any good bargains RH?

R H said...

You want a rundown? On my purchases?

Right, here we go.

Trousers. $6.99
Socks. $0.99
Toaster. $3.99
Shirt. $2.99
Jumper. $3.99
Tea towel. $0.99
Cardigan. $3.99
Saucepan. $1.99
*Tie. $2.99
Lampshade. $1.99

Total= $30.90

Less 50%= $15.45 (Wooh!)

Still, I was about eighty cents short. Very embarrassing.
But I needn't have worried; when they saw how I was dressed they let me off with it.

*Picture of Marilyn Monroe on tie.

(Savers. Emporium of love)

Lucy Tartan said...

That's a lot of stuff for $15.45 - 80c. Congratulations.

R H said...

Thank you, team tartan.

There'll be another half-pricer later this year,
I'll pick you up early and we'll crash it together.

Start saving your pennies!


(Wooh!) said...

Quite helpful information, thanks for your article.

Freeda C.J. said...

Nice article. Also, it confirms that there used to be just one owl as part of the statue in the Queen Victoria monument. There is now (2016) a second owl of a completely different artistic form and style, next to the original. Any idea what the story is behind this second smaller owl?