The Wheel of Life

August 4th, 2013 | Photos, Sunnyside, Web Gilbert

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!)

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In preparing this blog post, I have drawn heavily from three articles, as follows: