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.
The Wheel of Life
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!)
In preparing this blog post, I have drawn heavily from three articles, as follows:
The Malvern Town Hall
To recap briefly, my interest in the sculptor Web Gilbert stems from my fascination with the life and works of the Australian poet C. J. Dennis. Both Dennis and Gilbert were beneficiaries of the extensive largesse of Garry and Roberta Roberts, renowned patrons of the arts, and both spent time at the Roberts’ “Sunnyside” retreat in the Dandenong Ranges. It can be assumed they were good friends – at least for a time.
This online biography of Web Gilbert is extremely helpful:
Amongst many other things, it tells us that Gilbert was responsible for the marble sculpture at the Malvern Town Hall.
However, you will not find Gilbert’s name mentioned on this sculpture. Instead, there stands the name of Paul Montford, an English born sculptor.
Gilbert died suddenly in 1925. At the time of his death, he was working on an Anzac memorial to be erected at Port Said, Egypt. It was completed by Paul Montford. Can we assume, then, that the Malvern Town Hall statue was also completed by Montford after Gilbert’s death? To support this theory, the statue is dated 1930, well after Gilbert died.
Towards the end of WW1 the Roberts’ oldest son, Frank, enlisted in the AIF. Frank was the live-in manager of “Sunnyside”, and was married at the time, to Ruby. Furthermore, Ruby was pregnant. Eventually, she would give birth to a girl, Nancy.
There was no pressure on Frank Roberts to volunteer for service. Single men were expected to enlist, but not married men. Nevertheless, he felt it to be his patriotic duty.
Web Gilbert was by now living in London, and Frank spent some time staying with him before heading off to the Western Front.
Tragically, Frank Roberts was killed at the Battle of Mont St. Quentin, about a month before the signing of the Armistice. He never got to see his daughter.
This battle was one of General Sir John Monash’s most famous victories, and the sculptor, Web Gilbert, was commissioned to make a statue to commemorate it. Gilbert wrote to Frank’s father, Garry, telling him that he planned to model the soldier in the statue on Frank. However, the historian Peter Stanley has suggested that, for whatever reason, this may not in fact have actually happened.
The statue at the Malvern Town Hall is very interesting. On the left a young mother sits cradling a baby. On the right, a soldier stands, in full uniform, with face down. Am I drawing too long a bow to suggest that the figures on the left are Ruby and Nancy, and that on the right Frank?
Or is the sculpture really by Paul Montford after all?
I want to talk a little about Web Gilbert.
“Who is Web Gilbert?” you may well ask.
Gilbert was a sculptor, but perhaps I should go back to the beginning.
My favourite poet of all time is C. J. Dennis. Dennis was very much influenced by a small artists’ colony that was beginning to take shape in Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. (It wasn’t called Kallista then, though. It was known as South Sassafras.)
John Garibaldi Roberts and his wife Roberta owned a hobby farm, called “Sunnyside”. Roberts worked in various senior positions for the Melbourne Tramways Company, and was wealthy. He and his wife were also very enthusiastic and active patrons of the arts.
The Roberts invited many of their artist friends to stay with them at “Sunnyside”. When the house proved too small, they arranged for their son, Frank, who was managing the property, to tow a number of the horse-drawn omnibuses that had been rendered obsolete by the new cable tram technology up to “Sunnyside”, to be placed in the paddocks around the house.
C. J. Dennis was given his own omnibus, and it was here that he completed writing his masterpiece, “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”.
Another frequent visitor to “Sunnyside” was Web Gilbert. Gilbert’s life ran in a rough parallel to Henry Lawson’s. They were both born in the same year. Gilbert died three years after Lawson, but they were both very young – Lawson 55, Gilbert 58.
Gilbert actually began as a cake decorator, but moved from there to sculpting. Initially he used marble, but later he discovered the wonders of bronze. Gilbert did everything himself, a real ‘one man band’. This meant carting his own clay in wheelbarrows to make the moulds to eventually pour the bronze into. I have read that he dropped dead suddenly one day while wheeling his barrow. He had a studio in Gore Street, Fitzroy.
I will talk more about Gilbert later, but the sculpture that he is best known for is the Matthew Flinders statue outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
How many people walk past this statue every day without giving it a second thought? I know I did for many years.
I still know very little about it. I rang the Melbourne City Council one day to find out more information, and they very apologetically explained that they also know very little. They pointed me to the Public Records Office. I haven’t had a chance to get there yet, but hopefully I will one day.
Sadly, Gilbert died before the Flinders statue was installed.
from a distance…
from a greater distance…(love the blue bike thingeys)
from upstairs window of McDonalds, across the road