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History

10 Oct 2019

History Image

Southbank’s sculptures

Southbank is graced with some wonderful sculptures, both historic and modern.

They depict abstract forms as well as those dedicated to prominent members of the military (such as Sir John Monash) and members of the royal family, such as King George V. He died in 1936 of lung disease (he had been a heavy smoker and ill for some time) and monuments were dedicated to him across the British Empire.

The King George V statue is located on the western approach to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. It was one of a number commissioned by Melbourne City Council in Kings Domain and in across the Yarra in Fitzroy Gardens, as part of a drive to replace a series of crumbling concrete and plaster statues dating from the 1860s with modern works. (On one night in 1934, council officers removed 60 of these statues!)

The King George V statue is a striking piece of work, produced by the prominent sculptor Bill Bowles. Born in Sydney in 1885, he studied at Brisbane Technical College and then at the London School of Sculpture. After serving in the Tank Corps in World War One, he worked and studied in London post-war, before marrying and returning to Australia in 1924 where he worked at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, becoming head sculptor.

After relocating to Melbourne in 1931 he produced a number of outstanding sculptures and friezes. Bowles won the commission to provide a homage to the late King, based on his ability to subject the sculptural elements of large monuments to an overall architectural design. Here we see this demonstrated in the bronze statue where a conventional representation of the King is included within a set of twin simplified stone columns, intended to represent the bonds of Empire and which display the variations in the colouring of the stone. The overall effect was noted by newspapers in 1937 as displaying simplicity and being most unassuming, like the late King, and without any “freakishness or the grotesque.” By placing the sculpture within the base of the columns, instead of the conventional placement on a pedestal, Bowles reduced the work to essentials and was able to reflect the spirit of the 20th century, with the architectural design striking a new note in the Domain.

When a journalist from the Sun News Pictorial magazine visited Bowles’ studio in a tin shed in Prahran in 1938, he encountered “a genial, smiling man, besmocked and wearing a beret.” Later that year Bowles established a home and studio in Frankston, however, he suffered from ill-health and died at home from coronary vascular disease in 1954. But, what a wonderful sculptural legacy he left behind in Melbourne’s streets and gardens.

 

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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