Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 18, 2018

Sculptures of Melbourne (2015), by Mark S Holsworth

I stumbled on Sculptures of Melbourne at the library—and what a treasure it is!

Mark Holsworth is a Gen-X art and culture critic and this book grew out of the part of his blog that deals with public sculpture.

There are five chapters:

  1. Classicalism Forever 1780-2015
  2. Monuments and More Memorials 1864-2012
  3. Modernism Postponed 1957-2015
  4. Melbourne by Design 1989-2015
  5. The Temporary Present 2001-2015.

Vault, by Ron Robertson-Swann 1981, at its 3rd site at Southbank (Wikipedia Commons*)

There’s a timeline too, which starts in 1780 when Farnex Hercules was copied from the one in the Vatican; notes the first of countless war memorials in 1901; traces the movements of Vault a.k.a The Yellow Peril from 1980 to 1981 and 2002; and finishes up with the Plinth Projects in the Edinburgh Gardens.

In the Introduction, Holsworth makes the point that public sculptures are part of the surface archaeology of the city.  If you wander the streets as he does, you will see a wide variety of public sculptures, created at different times and for different reasons, but always from a desire to do public good, whatever ‘good’ and ‘public’ might mean. He says it’s not so hard to define public sculpture, but there are many more problems in trying to define the public:

There is the public who, in their oft-repeated words, ‘don’t know much about art but know what they like’.  There is also the public that does know about art.  The public is contradictory.  It consists of young and old, locals and visitors, ignorant and savvy. It is a public that sometimes sits on the plinths, renames the sculptures, writes angry letters to the newspaper about them and even steals them.  But it is also a population that looks at public sculptures, sometimes every day.  People identify with the city they live in.  Parts of the city are familiar to some people who then don’t want them to change.  Other areas are unfamiliar to us and we are simply visitors.  (p.7)

Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop statue in the Domain (Wikipedia Commons*)

Pastor Doug Nicholls and Lady Gladys (Wikipedia Commons*)

And that’s the thing about public sculpture.  If you are in the mood for an argument, just flourish some photos of it, and #guaranteed there will be a chorus of opinions from all sides of the cultural divide!  What makes such an argument even more interesting is that though Holsworth has done some sterling research, many of our sculptors are unknown names, and alas, often the sculptures are not exactly world class.  And I’d hazard a guess that some of the ones we like best are not great works of art: they are statues of people we admire like the POW medico Weary Dunlop and the first Aboriginal to be knighted Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls and his wife Lady Gladys.  Sportsfans will favour the statues of footy legends and cricketers, and I myself am fond of Joan of Arc outside the State Library.

Well, as you’d expect, Melbourne is full of classical sculpture dating from its early days, but never having looked at them closely, I hadn’t realised that there is classical statuary all over the Shrine of Remembrance and the Houses of Parliament.  But classicism is all very well, and we have our share of equestrian statues looking rather splendid, but the style faltered when it came to doing a statue of Sir Thomas Blamey and his jeep.  You can see it in the Domain, near the corner of Government House Drive and Birdwood Avenue and I’m afraid it’s rather awful.

The style of the Blamey Memorial is realist, similar to the National Socialist Realism of Nazi Germany or the Socialist Realism of the Stalinist Soviet Union.  The realism promoted by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union cast a long shadow across sculpture in Europe but had little impact in Australia.  The style of public art does portray the politics of those who commission it but it would be a mistake to conclude anything about an artist’s political beliefs from their style. (p.35)

Moving on from sculpture of recognisable people and things, the chapter on Modernism features all kinds of odd things, some of which I like, such as Deborah Halpern’s Angel which used to be in the moat at the NGV and I wish they’d bring it back because it was a splash of sassy colour against the grey brick walls.  I like the whimsy of ‘Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle‘ by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn, and I also like Public Purse by Simon Perry. But while I can quite see that children like to climb over strange whorls of metal or clamber over obscure bits of symbolism, they don’t do much for me.  There’s quite a bit of sculpture along our toll roads, and while I like the cheery colours, it’s the whimsy of Callum Morton’s Hotel on EastLink that I like best of all. It looks just like a hotel marooned in the middle of nowhere!

I love books that guide me to look at my city with fresh eyes, and this one inspires me to get out there with my camera and photograph my favourites just as Holsworth has done.

Sculptures of Melbourne is a beaut souvenir book for tourists, and an enlightening book for people who might not know much about sculpture or the history of the public art we have in our city,

Just one minor point: the sculptures on pages 90 and 91 are of Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer (not Hammer) and Pentridge chaplain Father Brosnan (not Bronson).

Photo credits:

Author: Mark S Holsworth
Title: Sculptures of Melbourne
Publisher: Melbourne Books, 2015, 220 pages
ISBN: 9781922129697
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Sculptures of Melbourne



  1. I wish I’d known about it when I visited Melbourne.
    It sounds fascinating and I can see how looking at your city with tourist eyes cab be refreshing.
    One day I’ll post a picture of the awful Saint Exupéry sculpture they have put at the door of the Lyon airport.


  2. Oh Lisa, this is a book I dreamt of writing 😁 great review and hope you told the publisher about the spelling mistakes for any reprints. I’m always fascinated by public sculpture and if you’re Melburnian debates about merit can become quite heated like the renaming and moving of the “Yellow Peril”! I have so many pictures of different sculptures all over the world that intrigue me how great to have their context explained.


    • Reserve it at the library and it will come to you as soon as I return it (mostly likely today or tomorrow). It really is a beaut book – but do check out his blog as well, it’s well worth following. BTW Did you see your post get at mention at Bill’s (The Australian Legend) EOY post?


  3. I don’t have a favourite sculpture but I’m sure about my least favourite- the pile of camel pops that marks the beginning of the Bourke & Wills expedition, in Royal Park.


    • poos. Bloody spell police!


      • You’d probably enjoy the annual mock execution of Batman and Fawkner, eh?


  4. You wrote, “I love books that guide me to look at my city with fresh eyes, and this one inspires me to get out there with my camera and photograph my favourites just as Holsworth has done.”
    This is exactly what I was thinking when I read this. One nice day I might go out and photograph the Sculptures of Hobart. There aren’t as many as in Melbourne but they are interesting. They are to do with early Dutch explorers and life in Antarctica. Would make a fun blog post.


    • Oh, yes please – that would be wonderful if you could do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Sculptures of Melbourne, by Mark S Holsworth […]


  6. […] discovered Mark Holsworth’s Sculptures of Melbourne quite by chance and as you can see in my review I enjoyed his take on sculptures old and new in my city, but for a glimpse into what’s […]


  7. […] discovered Mark Holsworth’s Sculptures of Melbourne quite by chance and as you can see in my review I enjoyed his take on sculptures old and new in my city, but for a glimpse into what’s […]


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