Web Gilbert and Buddhism
October 6th, 2014 | 'Banjo' Paterson, C. J. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Web Gilbert
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 1891. 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: