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 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:
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 (“Garry”) 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. Garry 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 Garry 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, Garry 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 Garry.
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 that 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 Garry 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 Garry 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.