April 1: Symbolism

Date #1Volunteering as a guide at Castlemaine Art Museum, as I enter the building I pass under a bas-relief on the facade that may elicit only a glance, but has rich meaning.

Determined to get a good shot, I spent a couple of hours in the quiet of Labour Day morning waiting for some raking light to pick up the modelling of the relief. Its upper faces are in shadow for most of the day, and earlier, those on the left are shaded by the rebate.

Orlando Dutton bas-relief_sm
James McArdle (2023) Orlando Dutton (1930-31) Castlemaine Art Museum facade bas-relief over entrance, artificial stone.


Harley Cameron Griffiths, Sen. (1941) Orlando Dutton. Oil on canvas on board, 51 x 40.5 cm

Myth, heraldry and symbolism provided content for such building decoration, dating back to the classical era and Orlando Dutton’s relief for the gallery is one such example.

Orlando Henry Dutton (whose initials and surname are on the sculpture) was an Australian immigrant born in Walsall, Staffordshire, on 1 April 1894. After fighting in WW1 and contracting malaria in Malta, he followed other members of his family to South Australia in 1920, marrying there and completing four bronze reliefs that surround the obelisk of a war memorial in the town Booleroo Centre (confirmed in my query to State Library SA) from memories of his own wartime experiences. Erected in the small town of 516 people, inland from and 35km east of the top of Spencer Gulf, to commemorate those who served in World War One, the memorial was unveiled one Sunday in November 1922 by Colonel E. J. Parkes.

Captured in Rev. C. E. Taylor’s picture of the memorial below is a figure whose moustache, flat nose and prominent ears, just visible, on close inspection look remarkably like the subject of Harley Griffiths portrait perhaps made when Dutton was forty-seven. Incidentally, both Harley Cameron Griffiths, Sen. and his son have had retrospectives at Castlemaine Art Museum, and Griffiths sen. was an associate of Max Meldrum the work of whose disciples, the Australian Tonalists, are a specialty of the collection.

Booleroo 1923
Rev. C. E. Taylor (1922) “Soldiers’ Memorial, Booleroo Centre, unveiled on Sunday, November 19th” Adelaide Observer, 2 December 1922, page 28

The Adelaide Register of Friday 27 October 1922, describes Dutton’s reliefs under the headline “Beautiful Modelling;”

Under the direction of Mr. E. Davies (‘the well-known Adelaide architect and President of the S.A. Society of Arts), Mr. Orlando Dutton, a son of a gentleman prominent in local bowling circles particularly, has just completed a fine set of original models for bronze panels, to be affixed to the soldiers’ memorial at Booleroo. The panels depict four branches of the A.I.F. on active service. The infantry are represented by a Lewis gun in action behind a barricade: and in the rear stands a group of comrades, intently watching the effect of the salvo. No. 2 gives a scene in Palestine — a light horse patrol halted in the shade of a group of palm trees. One trooper, dismounted, adjusts the buckles of his harness while the others sit at ease. In the distant hills can be discerned the domes and turrets of a village. No. 3, devoted to the medical corps, deals with the arrival of a convoy at a hospital, with stretcher-bearers emptying a motor ambulance. In the foreground a doctor and a nurse are ministering to a sufferer, and approaching along the road is a horse ambulance wagon. No. 4 depicts an artillery field gun in action. The loader is pushing home another round and the ground is strewn with empty shell cases; and a signaller, at a field telephone, repeats a message to the battery officers; and in the rear, the horses of the gun team are being driven away. These scenes are based on the young artist’s personal observations— he served four years with the Imperial Forces, and was engaged on three fronts…

Shortly after, he moved to Melbourne to settle more permanently, having married Emma.

The son of a baker, he was trained as apprentice to architectural sculptor Robert Bridgeman in Lichfield as a stone carver, and was employed on buildings under such architects as the late Mr. G. F. Bodley, R.A., Sir Ashton Webb, R.A., and Mr. Gilbert Scott in various parts of England before coming here, where he also fought in the AIF in WW2. At sixty-one on a nostalgic return to England in 1955 he revisited his beloved home town, and his early sculptural commissions, intending to settle permanently with his then 75-year-old wife Emma. Tragically she died there. He returned to Australia in 1960, and died two years later.

CAM Terrace DJ
James McArdle (2023) Castlemaine Art Museum during opening of 2023 Castlemaine State Festival 

I am trying to discover if Percy Meldrum, architect of the 1931 Art Deco CAM building commissioned Dutton directly. Perhaps he knew of sculptures on which Dutton was working for the facade of the Manchester Unity Building at the intersection of Collins and Swanston Streets…below is a shot of one of its duplicate sculptural groups in my photograph from Ken Scarlett’s Australian Sculptors – they are six stories above the street.

Dutton sculpture Manchester Unity
James McArdle (1979) Orlando Dutton, 1930-31 Statuary groups ‘Faith, Hope and Charity,’ for the Manchester Unity building, Melbourne on both the Collins Street and Swanston Street facades, close to the corner entrance. From Ken Scarlett Australian Sculptors. Nelson, 1980.
Peter Lawrence (2021) Manchester Unity Building

Relief sculptures were a frequently occurring feature of Art Deco design. The Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels of 1925—Les Arts Decos, as it was popularly abbreviated—gave its name to that style, its parameters fixed not necessarily by what was exhibited there, but by the affinity of its creations as regarded since, and augmented by developments in design in the geometrical style in the United States which was a component of Art Deco in the years before the First World War. Meldrum, born in 1887 at Casterton, after he qualified in 1907 was articled to to Melbourne architect A. A. Fritsch until 1913, then won the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects Bronze Medal and travelled to Chicago and admired the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In England in 1914 he worked with the War Office designing aircraft hangars. After WWI Meldrum joined the Architectural Association School in London, where he met and taught Arthur Stephenson and Donald Turner who joined him as partners. In 1930 they designed the Castlemaine Art Museum building in an Art Deco style, which is among others of their designs before Meldrum left the partnership in 1937, including Newspaper House, Collins Street, Melbourne, 1932; the Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne, Victoria, 1934; a seminal modernist building the Freemasons Hospital, East Melbourne, Victoria, 1936, hailed as one of the first and best expressions of streamline ‘functionalism’ with long horizontal balconies, and lack of adornment radically severe for the time apart from relief carving, which is the only decoration; The Mercy Hospital, of similar functional horizontality; the Victorian Railways, Spirit of Progress train, 1937; and the Australian Pavilion for the Paris Exposition of 1937 (demolished).

Unknown photographer (17 November 1937) S Class Steam Locomotive No.302 Edward Henty Steam Spirit Of Progress. Public Record Office Victoria


Australian Pavilion Paris 1937
Stephenson, Meldrum and Turner (1937) Australian Pavilion at the Paris Exhibition, 1937

Even with the assistance of 17-year-old Stanley Hammond over 1930-32, Dutton was under pressure to complete these and other commissions at the same time. His solution was ingenious; both the CAM bas-relief and the Manchester Unity sculptures are cast from moulds…expedient in the case of the Melbourne commission given the need for identical sets of figures (Faith, Hope and Charity) above each entrance on the corner block. For that he used high-fired terracotta cast in pieces and assembled for installation. For CAM, since it had to be transported from his Melbourne studio, he cast the bas-relief in artificial stone. 

Dutton obliquesm
James McArdle (2023) Dutton bas-relief from an oblique angle, showing the straight sides of the raised forms.

The process is evident in the way none of the shallow figures is undercut, so that it could be easily extracted in three pieces from the negative mould, itself cast in plaster from a clay original. That is why no chisel marks are visible, and you can see the incisions into wet clay that form spare line work…it is modelled additively, not sculpted subtractively in the traditional sense.

Screenshot 2023-03-29 at 10.28.46 pm
James McArdle (2023) Detail of the Dutton bas-relief from an oblique angle, showing the straight sides of the raised forms.

That technique is echoed in the planters on the terrace by sculptor and textile artist Michael O’Connell, also from England, who made them and his house ‘Barbizon‘ in (Clarice Beckett’s) Beaumaris in cast concrete. Their panels in warm artificial stone depict local native animals.

Planter 2

Michael O’Connell – concrete birdbath, fountain, and pot with Ella Moody, Australia
Michael O’Connell (c.1924-26) concrete birdbath, fountain, and pot with Ella Moody, whom he married in 1931 the year Castlemaine Art Museum was built, photographed in their house ‘Barbizon’ in Beaumaris

The subject of Dutton’s bas-relief is understood from its symbolism, in which he was well versed; the Journal of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects of September 1935 recorded that at the August meeting of its Students’ Society he lectured on the evolution of symbolism from Egypt and Assyria and its diversity of forms brought about by Christian adaptations. He criticised “the great lack of sculptural significance in the decoration of most Melbourne buildings,” arousing discussion of the modern application of sculpture to architectural design that continued well after his presentation.

Crown2The identity of the central female figure is conveyed by the fact that her throne bears on her left a ‘mural crown’ which looks like it is made of brick or stone blocks. The crown descends from that legendary golden band or halo bestowed on the Roman soldier who was first to breach the walls of a city or fortress besieged by his army (though earlier mural crowns appear on heads in Greek sculptures too). It was taken up in medieval heraldry, and appears on coats of arms of many countries, including that of Malta where Dutton fought, and is the symbol of the guardian deity of nations, states or cities. So the woman at the centre of our building facade is the goddess of Castlemaine.

FascesTo reinforce her power, at her right appears the fasces carried by the attendants of any Roman authority figure, be they magistrates, senators, or emperors. It is a bundle of birch rods – truncheons in effect – and when carried beyond Rome’s walls, they were bound around a battle-axe – in this case double-headed, to be used to punish any who would defy Roman law. Originally a literal symbol of punitive ‘fascist’ authority, here, they may attach to another legend, that of Aesop’s tale of a despairing father whose sons were constantly fighting. For their edification he presented each with sticks tied in a bundle which he challenged them to break. None could. He then untied the bundle and gave each son one of the sticks, again inviting them to break them, which they did easily. “United,” he said, “you are strong. On your own, you can be defeated. Agree, look out for each other, and you may thrive.” That may be the intention here…it was a dedicated group of women who united to realise the building of CAM.

Antoine Fauchery and Richard Daintree (c.1858) Gold-panners in Forest Creek, near Castlemaine. Albumen print from collodion negative.

acanthusThe figure we know is Castlemaine herself gestures broadly. On one side, she takes the gold dug out by the miners depicted on our right, labouring in the mud of Forest Creek with shovel and pan, and uses it to build Castlemaine. On the other she gives of this wealth to artists; a painter, and a sculptor who perhaps carves a version of herself with his mallet and chisel. The miners’ windlass and the sculptor’s plinth; and the mound of miners’ clay and the leaves of acanthus at the artists’ feet; in the corners these forms bracket the strict symmetry, like that of the whole gallery facade. Those leaves emerge from another Roman tale told by Vitruvius in which Greek architect Callimachus saw on the grave of a little girl that her nurse had set a basket of her favourite toys and placed a slate upon it to protect it. Acanthus around the grave had grown through the basket, thus inspiring the ornate Corinthian capital.

Stout trunks growing beside the throne of the goddess Castlemaine sprout more leaves above her head; flowering gum to the right, and over the artists, laurel, the symbol of triumph worn by champion athletes and poets laureate, and of the women whose vision is realised in this building.

As you walk through the iron porch gates to enter the Art Museum you pass under another relief, a scallop shell in stone placed directly above the glass doors. In heraldry it is the badge of those who had been on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and here it belongs to pilgrims of art, the visitors to CAM.

James McArdle & Lorena Carrington (2017) Castlemaine Art Museum facade, architect Percy Meldrum, sculptural relief by Orlando Dutton. Terrace sculpture; Zoe Amor

2 thoughts on “April 1: Symbolism

  1. Thanks James, Please find attached a brief obit on William Main who died on 7 March, for your information, and also a press release about my Photoforum Online blog series about the non-collection of photographers’ analogue collections in NZ. Keep up your good work. I’ve always remembered those wonderful Fauchery/ Daintree images but was unable to get Beaumont Newhall to include them in his revised history of P. All best, John

    On Sat, Apr 1, 2023 at 3:53 PM On This Date in Photography: by James Mcard


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