Bertram Mackennal's War Sculptures in Australia

[This article has been kindly contributed by Donald Richardson of the University of South Australia.]

Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) was not only the first Australian artist to be knighted - he was created MVO (Member of the Royal Victorian Order) in 1912 and KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) in 1921 - but he was the first and only Australian sculptor ever to be made a full member of the Royal Academy, being elected ARA in 1909 and RA in 1922. He was also the first overseas-born RA. Born in Melbourne, the son of a sculptor, he spent all but a few years of his adult life in Europe, returning to Australia on visits only thrice from the time of his arrival in England early in 1883. An artist of considerable talent, he nevertheless seemed unable to benefit from a short period working in Paris (in 1883) with Rodin, to whom he had been introduced by fellow Australian John Peter Russell; instead, he espoused the less expressive English school of The New Sculpture - the sculptural equivalent of the Victorian-period painters' literal realism on to which was grafted some of the decorative approach of Art Nouveau.

In London, Mackennal achieved enough fame to maintain a large house and up to three studios. The Tate Gallery purchased his bronzes, The Elements (in 1907) and Diana Wounded (in 1908) under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. Edward VII made him Royal Sculptor in 1910, and he was a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, who ascended the throne as George V in that year.

He was often a friend and support to other, less successful, Australian artists visiting Europe.

Among Mackennal's many commissions in England are a number of war memorials, including the Islington commemoration of the South African War (1903) (see note on Islington), and the First World War memorials at Eton College, in the city of Blackburn [1] and in the Houses of Parliament, Westminster (which is dedicated to British MPs who had died in that war). Also, he designed a plaque in Amiens Cathedral in memory of the Australian dead in the Great War. His only war memorial in Australia is The Cenotaph, in Martin Place, Sydney. However, while in Australia on his 1926-27 visit, he was commissioned to complete the Desert Mounted Corps memorial for Port Said, which was left unfinished by the untimely death of Web Gilbert in 1925. Apparently Mackennal worked on this memorial while in Sydney [2], but he completed the plaster, in London, only a few days before he himself died. The bronze cast was made posthumously.

Justice, from the Edward VII memorial in Adelaide (1920)

The Sydney Cenotaph [3]

In 1924, the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of New South Wales approached the NSW government for its moral and financial support to erect a memorial as 'a thanks offering' to the men and women of the state who had served and died in the First World War [4]. A trust was set up and about 60,000 had been subscribed by 1923, but the death of one of the trustees tied the funds up legally for a time [5]. Discussion ensued as to whether a utilitarian structure, such as a memorial hall, or 'an idealistic Memorial in St James's Square, adjoining Hyde Park Barracks', should be built [6].

In January, 1926, the Lang government agreed to add up to 10,000 to the 'large sum' of money already raised by the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League [7].

The government then gave 'informal instructions'[8] that a sub-committee be appointed to organize a competition for the design of a cenotaph. The centrally-located Martin Place was chosen as the location, but this was challenged immediately - as it was periodically right up until the time the street was declared a pedestrian mall in 1967.

The term cenotaph derives from the Greek words taphos, meaning tomb, and kenos, meaning empty. This form of monument was deemed appropriate - as it was for Whitehall, in London - because the war-dead of both countries had been interred overseas. But Whitehall is a much more spacious street than Martin Place and, although motor-vehicle traffic was much less in the 1920s than it was soon to become, many far-sighted citizens criticized the choice of site for this reason. Martin Place was described as 'an ever-deepening canyon of a commercial centre' where the memorial would not be able to be seen for the 'traffic rushing by'[9], and no more than 'a cab-rank'[10]. One writer [11] opined that the site was 'no more suitable a spot for a market place (than) could be imagined' and 'no one, except from an aeroplane, may ever see it from far'. Dr John Bradfield, one of the designers of and the engineer in charge of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which had commenced a few months earlier), who maintained a continued interest in the project, suggested - with much justification - that it would look 'more imposing' in Wynyard Square [12].

But the RSSIL had chosen Martin Place because its central location had made it the venue of many patriotic rallies during the war, and no amount of public persuasion could divert it from its decision. There was even a suggestion that the city council might pave Martin Place with rubber to lessen traffic noise [13].

However, the plan for a design competition was abandoned when Mackennal arrived in Sydney (in February, 1926) to oversee the erection of his Shakespeare Memorial, which is situated near the Mitchell Library, and 'to get some sunshine'[14]. Mackennal was feted during his visit, which lasted for more than a year - from February, 1926, until March, 1927 [15]. He lunched with Prime Minister Bruce and gave him his advice on the future development of the new city of Canberra, proposing the central location of a 'symbolic' group of statuary 'representing the accomplishment of Federation'16. In an interview published in Art in Australia [17], he advised Sydney on how to realize its potential as a major city of beauty. Premier Lang was very impressed by him and it seems that he convinced the committee to award the contract for the cenotaph to Mackennal without having a competition - which it did, on 9 March, 1926 [18]. Although there were some objections to this move [19], the public rallied in support. The memorial would be smaller than Victoria's [20], but it would be certain to be of high quality and there would be another - larger - 'ANZAC Memorial', provisionally costed at 100,000, built later [21].

Whereas the Town Planning Association - a consistent critic of the concept - continued to discuss the restoration of the competition, 'many returned soldiers felt that, if the choice of design were left to judges, some terrible effigy might be erected' [22].

The Design

In spite of the fact that the Sydney Morning Herald attributed the design to Dr Bradfield [23], he only collaborated with Mackennal on designing the stone base.

Mackennal conceived the whole structure during his sojourn at East Sydney Technical College, in a small studio which became known as 'The Kennel' afterwards. The Cenotaph is a rectangular structure composed of 23 pieces of tightly-fitting granite, culminating in an altar, with life-sized bronze figures of a soldier and a sailor placed at either end.

The contract stated that the work was to be completed by Anzac Day, 1929 - and it was, the bronzes having arrived in Sydney in February, 1929 [24]. The maquette for the whole work was approved by the committee from a number of alternative designs [25] before Mackennal left for London in 1927, never to return to Australia again.

The stone structure was erected while Mackennal was back in London, where he made the two bronze figures in 1927-29. Dr Bradfield supervised the construction as Mackennal's agent in Sydney in an honorary capacity. He also selected the stone - from the Moruya quarry (on the south coast of NSW) which was currently supplying the granite for the facing of the bridge pylons. Although the RSSIL had wished to have incorporated in the structure two blocks of stone which soldiers had brought back from France and Gallipoli26, it is unlikely that this happened.

The memorial carries two inscriptions: 'To our glorious dead' on the side facing the General Post Office building and 'Lest we Forget' on the street side. Mackennal successfully resisted having '1914-19' added on the grounds that it would be totally evident from the sculptures that the monument related to the 'Great War' and that, anyway, the memorial was to be dedicated not only to those who had died in those years but also to the 20,000-25,000 who had died since [27].

The two bronze figures were, according to the Sydney Morning Herald [28], to be 'cast from living models'. This is not only an example of shoddy journalism but also of the naive popular misconceptions that the work should be a supreme example of realistic sculpture, that this was the only appropriate style for it and that such realism could only be achieved by life-casting (none of which are true, of course). It was also reported that Mackennal's model for the soldier was a man who had 'served in three wars' [29] - indicating another false, naive belief: that this would somehow add to the efficacy of the memorial. The Melbourne Herald of 30 October, 1929, added that this man was 'now living in Queensland' and, on 8 January, 1936, that his name was William P. Darby and that he had died in January of that year. The model for the sailor was Leading Signalman John William Varcoe (1897-1948) of the Royal Australian Navy.

However, this may all be mere journalistic supposition. It is unlikely, given the practicalities involved, that Mackennal would have transported half way across the world life-sized Plasticene or - even - plaster models of bronzes he proposed to make in England. It is more likely that he would only have taken drawings of the models with him. But, he would probably have felt it necessary to draw in Australia from actual service-men in authentic costume given that most patrons of war memorials placed great store on details of costume and accoutrements.

Both figures are represented with rifles, guarding the altar-stone, but standing at ease. In reply to some published criticisms of the pose of the figures, Mackennal cabled from London [30] that the structure was '..not a tomb. Figures not mourning. Guarding altar of remembrance.'

Mackennal did not include a colour-patch on the soldier to avoid unnecessary recriminations and jealousy [31].


The construction of the memorial was undertaken by the British engineering firm of Dorman Long, which was then building the Sydney Harbour Bridge - no doubt as a gesture of good will to the city which had commissioned its services.

Sydney City Council made the 3.05 x 7.32m site available, this being judged to be the maximum area that would allow traffic to flow past it safely. Excavation began in June, 1927. The stone-work was completed in a few weeks, the last block of granite - the altar-stone, a rectangular prism, 3.05 x 1.6m in plan, and 1.22 m high, and weighing approximately 20 tonnes - being put in place on 1 August [32]. Bradfield, as ever, supervised the placement.

The completed stone structure was unveiled and dedicated on 8 August, in the presence of the Governor of NSW, Sir Dudley de Chair, and Premier Lang, who handed it over to the city. The significance of the date was explained in a speech given by Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel. It commemorated the day of the battle, in France in 1919, in which the Australian Imperial Force took a major part, and which was the beginning of the defeat of the German army. The proceedings were reported in detail in all newspapers.

An impressive, if not very imposing, structure in its own right, the altar was used for commemorative purposes many times before the bronze figures were added. The completed memorial was unveiled on 21 February, 1929, the anniversary of the day the Australian Light Horse entered Jericho during the Palestine campaign. Sir John Monash, who had planned the successful offensive in Flanders of 8 August, 1919, addressed the crowd [33].

Mackennal was paid 10,000 in 1929, and there was some discussion about whether income tax was payable on the fee [34].

After the figures had been put in place it was observed that, while the sailor faced inland, the soldier faced the sea. It was decided to reverse their positions, but which version was originally intended is not clear.

Public Acceptance

Criticisms of the structure started even before the official unveiling. Some were primarily practical. The Town Planning Association found it 'too squat' and suggested it be placed on a wider and higher base and a more imposing site. It should be removed to the location of the Shakespeare Memorial - which Mackennal had completed just three years earlier [35]. A correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald [36] suggested that the two figures should be turned to face out towards the street.

The Returned Soldiers' League, basing its remarks on the photographs of the bronzes which Mackennal had sent in advance found - somewhat trivially - the details of the soldier wanting [37]: the puttee on one leg shows eight folds and on the other nine, and there are 'two eyelets in one boot and three in the other, while the end of each puttee juts out over the tongue of the boots'. 'Whether the errors in dress were committed by the Digger who posed... or by the sculptor himself, the League will seek to ascertain'. The League explained that the digger wears a tin helmet because he is in full battle-dress but claimed credit for 'instructing' Mackennal to place the chin-strap behind the head rather than under the chin, as this was the soldiers' general practice [38]. These silly quibbles are further examples of the general misunderstanding in Sydney at the time of the art of sculpture.

On the other hand, graphic designer George Patterson's criticisms [39] were more based on aesthetic considerations. His article is headed: 'A Soulless Cenotaph: No Inspiration in these Figures'. 'It is a shock...', having recently returned from a visit to the battlefields, ' turn into Martin Place.....and halt before the "cenotaph" which is not a cenotaph, and the so-called replicas of "precious friends", which are so commonplace and unreal as to make you think it were better to have nothing at all'. The memorial 'lacks nobility and pathos' and 'implores the passing tribute of a sigh'. Patterson's views were shared by many.

None of these quibbles had any result, however.

Over the years The Cenotaph featured in the press in other ways. There were frequent discussions as to whether it was being accorded due respect - for example, whether people should not rush by it, and whether men should remove their hats and/or salute when in its vicinity. It was desecrated by some university students in May, 1929, during their annual Commemoration Day ceremonies when, after a theatre performance, they destroyed floral tributes which were on the memorial. Two students spent a night in gaol, and both the university and the student body apologized to the city [40]. On 5 November, 1929, the Sydney Morning Herald published a photograph of a party of Italian officials, led by the Acting Consul-General, saluting The Cenotaph in the Fascist manner - without comment. In December, 1932, someone placed a joint of beef on the soldier's bayonet and posters mentioning 'the dole' and 'wage slaves' were stuck to it [41] - the former somewhat trivial, but the latter reflecting the employment situation of the time.

In 1929, a peaceful Communist Party demonstration in support of the American working-class martyrs, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, paused before the Cenotaph. There was controversy in 1933 as to whether the sailors of the visiting German cruiser, K ln, should be permitted to place wreaths on it. They were, and the ceremony passed without incident.

The National Sailors' Memorial

Before he left England on his 1926-27 visit to Australia, Mackennal had been approached by a committee that had been formed in Sydney following a conference of interstate harbour authorities in Melbourne in October, 1924. This conference discussed a concept, originating in the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, to erect a memorial on the small, low group of rocks known as 'The Sow And Pigs', just inside The Heads of Sydney Harbour, to yachtsmen who had served in the First World War. This developed into a proposal for a national memorial to all seamen who had served in the war. The idea received the support of the prime minister, the premier of NSW and of 'a large and enthusiastic public meeting at the Sydney Town Hall', and Mackennal was written to for his opinion and advice [42]. His reply was enthusiastically encouraging. The committee had proposed that something similar to his recently-completed major group on Australia House, London - Phoebus Driving the Horses of the Sun (1923) - perhaps a Horses of Neptune - would be appropriate, but Mackennal insisted that it should be 'quite distinctive' and not in any way based on any existing war memorial: 'it must be ours, Australian'. He suggested a tall pylon topped by a statue representing Australia with a bronze group of sailors 'rising from the sea'. 'The very fact that the sea washes over the rocks is wonderful'. The proposal, he wrote, 'grows in my mind as I write'.

However, although some money was subscribed, the project was never proceeded with [43]. The practical difficulties involved in creating a monument of sufficient size to be visible above - and survive - the high seas that often covered the rocks themselves would have been formidable.


Mackennal, who - at the age of 51 in 1914 - was too old to provide anything but moral support for the war effort, was nevertheless very 'moved and so proud of the gallantry, extreme courage, and fortitude of our troops at Anzac', as he stated in a letter to the Australian High Commissioner in London [44]. In this way, Mackennal broached his desire to donate to the Australian government 'a small tribute of admiration and pride in my fellow countrymen - a Colossal Bronze bust entitled War, with suitable pedestal' [45]. The offer included free transport to Australia.

This larger-than-life-sized bronze, representing the Roman goddess of war - Bellona - scowling and bare-breasted, wearing a grotesquely-decorated helmet embossed with the grimacing likeness of her brother, Mars [46], Mackennal had made in 1906, but it must never have sold. Under the title War, it was reviewed in an article on a sculpture show at the Royal Academy [47] in which it was described as 'a powerful work, but hardly intense enough to symbolize war'; 'we should rather have taken it to mean "Anger"'.

Although the figure is finely modeled, it is cut off at mid-thorax, making a somewhat awkward composition. It stands about three metres high on its stone pedestal.

It is a curious choice for a donation to one's country. The Age [48] expressed 'considerable confusion' about it and, noting the date of its creation, remarked that it 'cannot have been intended as a compliment to the part played by Australia in the war'. Noel Hutchison [49] suggests 'perhaps he may have thought that the Australians over-glorified war and, therefore, sent something which emphasized the terror and anguish of warfare'.

Apparently the work was always something of an embarrassment to the government, although there is no specific reference to this in the files or newspaper articles. This could be due to the work's overt femininity, on the one hand, and its aggressive mien, on the other - both of which characteristics were quite evident from the photographs Mackennal sent. It was nothing like any of the other images of the war which were being created at the time [50]. Even though the government decided to accept the gift in January, 1916, incredibly it was not until nearly five years later that it even acknowledged it and expressed its thanks to Mackennal - in a letter from the prime minister, dated 8 April, 1921 [51]. It is possible that Mackennal may not have been affronted or discouraged by this official discourtesy as he had frequent contact with Australia House in London and may have received assurances from the high commissioner that all was proceeding satisfactorily.

The sculpture was not dispatched from London until four years after the offer - on 7 March, 1920 [52]. Then, when it arrived in Melbourne - at that time the seat of the Australian Government - it was totally ignored for a further year! The Argus reported on 5 April, 1921, that the sculpture had arrived 'a year ago' but it had 'not been unpacked until yesterday', and the Herald, on 13 April, added that the packages had 'been left lying about the yard' all that time. The Argus article incorrectly named the sculpture 'Victory' and indicated that it was to be placed in the centre of the steps of Parliament House. In the course of erection, the stone base fell off the truck and had to be replaced with another, but it was unveiled there on Anzac Day, 1921 [53].

Its relocation in Canberra late in 1926 [54] also was fraught with difficulties. The ACT Art Advisory Committee said that it should be placed 'in general association with the War Memorial' but nowhere near Parliament House [55]! The Australian War Memorial Board insisted on being consulted about its location [56] and, in 1927, decided to lend the sculpture to the Federal Capital Development Commission until the Australian War Memorial was completed [57] - thus postponing a difficult decision indefinitely.

In 1969, the War Memorial Board - having accepted the sculpture as a gift in 1920 - declined to receive it from the National Capital Development Commission on the grounds that, whereas the Memorial stands for the spirit of sacrifice, Bellona stands for the spirit of aggression [58]. It spent some time in the grounds of Government House, Yarralumla, in the 1970s. Its location at the time of writing - outside Canberra's Albert Hall - seems to have been a politic, if anodyne, solution to an embarrassing acquisition.

Researched and written by Donald Richardson, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia (March, 2000), (21 Druids Avenue, Mount Barker, South Australia, Australia 5251).

Australia welcoming newcomers, from the Edward VII memorial in Adelaide (1920)


Australian Archives, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney; Australian War Memorial, Canberra; Mortlock Library, Adelaide.

Tranter, R R, 'Bertram Mackennal: A Career' (MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1990).


[1] Of these three, only the Islington memorial has survived, however.

[2] The Advertiser, 15 September, 1926.

[3] Its tide was officially stated to be 'The Martin Place War Memorial to Fallen Sailors, Soldiers and Nurses' in a note in the Morning Herald of 7 January, 1927, p. 12. There is little wonder, however, that this title did not stick.

[4] Apparently, the issue of a national war memorial for Sydney was first raised in 1920, when a city alderman and former state president of the RSSIL, Mr Fred Davidson, lobbied influential people for support. See the Sun, 20 February, 1929, and Sydney City Council Archives file TC6325127.

[5] From a pamphlet published by the Federal Council of the Australian Institute of Architects in 1923 - National War Memorials.

[6] Ibid. The AIA recommended a non-utilitarian memorial.

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November, 1926. It appears that the RSSIL had raised 60,000. Mackennal's bill only came to a total of 10,000 (Melbourne Herald 30 October, 1929). The 50,000 balance may have hem passed over to the ANZAC Memorial funds.

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March, 1926.

[9] Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March, 1'P-6. An indication of the depth of feeling about this point is that notes of this tenor appeared in this paper even before the memorial was built. Several letters to the editor appeared in April-May, 1923. That published on 4 May also suggested removing the site to between St James's and the Hyde Park Barracks.

[10] Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July, 1929.

[11] Letter to Sydney Morning Herald 6 March, 1926.

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May, 1927. A note in The Sydney Morning Herald of 21 March, 1927, indicates that Premier Lang favoured the Wynyard site.

[13] The same proposal was made for London's Whitehall (The Advertiser, 4 August, 1923).

[14] The Advertiser, 17 March, 1926.

[15] A member of the Town Planning Association commented sourly that he had 'arrived in a halo of glory' (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March, 1926).

[16] Memorandum, signed 'S M Bruce' in Australian Archives A6006, Bruce-Page Ministry January-June, 1927. The memo concludes: 'in view of the heavy building and financial commitments it is not desirable to proceed ... but that the question be taken up at a later date'. It may be that Mackennal was angling for a commission here. Tom Bass's Canberra Ethos, in Civic Square - not quite what Mackennal had envisioned, was unveiled in 1962.

[17] 3, 16; June, 1926.. Mackennal's visit was a great personal success. Not only did he secure the commission for The Cenotaph and for the King George V memorial for Parliament House, Canberra, but he was also asked to complete the memorial to the Desert Mounted Corps for Port Said, which Web Gilbert had left unfinished at his death; and his October, 1926, exhibition of small sculptures at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, realised him the sum of 3650 (Art in Australia, 3, 19; March, 1927, p.45).

[18] Australian Archives ACT46118 C370111131 1.

[19] Some of the objections may have been political in inspiration and others due to Ung's somewhat dictatorial style.

[20] Although, by 1926, Victoria had planned to build Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, construction did not actually commence until 1928.

[21] The Anzac Memorial, in Hyde Park, was unveiled in 1934.

[22] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March, 1926.

[23] On 4 February, 1929. Mackennal wrote to the paper protesting (letter published 10 April, 1929). (Reports by SMH journalists of the day were often faulty, as was the work of the proof-readers. The reports in the Melbourne Herald are more reliable.)

[24] Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February, 1929.

[25] Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January, 1927.

[26] Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July, 1925.

[27] Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May, 1927.

[28] 19 March, 1927.

[29] Not detailed, but possible the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Boer War of 1899-1901 and the First World War. Sydney City Council Archives documents record him as Private William P. Derby (1870-1936) of the 15th Infantry Battalion and the 4th Field Ambulance AIP. The same document also records the name of the model for the sailor.

[30] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September, 1927.

[31] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 1928.

[32] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August, 1927.

[33] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February, 1929. Sydney Mail, 27 February, 1929.

[34] Melbourne Herald, 30 October, 1929.

[35] Sydney Morning Herald, 1 1 July, 1929.

[36] 17 July, 1929.

[37] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 October, 1928

[38] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 1928.

[39] Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March, 1929.

[40] Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Herald 22 May, 1929.

[41] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December, 1932.

[42]The Advertiser, 16 June, 1925.

[43] An alternative approach, one which would 'counter the great land mass, broad ocean and large liners in size', was suggested by H E Ross, of Ross and Rowe Architects, Sydney, in The Sydney Morning Herald of 9 May 1925. It proposed a relief-modelled globe of the world 200 feet in diameter. Ross was of the opinion that a 'mythical representation would entirely miss the sentiment' of the memorial.

[44] Copy filed in Australian Archives ACT 508/2117. The letter is dated 31 December, 1916 but it must really have been written on the last day of 1915 because it resulted in cables passing between London and Melbourne during 1916.

[45] Capitalization as in the original. Although the sculpture is over life-size, it is an exaggeration to call Bellona/War 'colossal'.

[46] Roman mythology is equivocal as to whether Bellona was the brother or the consort of Mars.

[47] The Builder, 14 July, 1906.

[48] 20 April, 1921.

[49] Bertram Mackennal, Oxford, Melbourne, 1973, p.24.

[50] There are excellent critical comments on this sculpture in R R Tranter's MA thesis, Bertram Mackennal: A Career (Sydney University, 1990) (unpublished). Tranter recounts other instances of government agencies being embarrassed by the sculpture.

[51] Australian Archives ACT 50812117.

[52] Mackennal would have had to wait until peacetime to secure the bronze for the cast.

[53] The Age, 15 July, 1921, ACT A45811 C37018.

[54] Australian Archives ACT A45811 C37018.

[55] In a memorandum dated 15 March, 1926, loc cit.

[56] In a memorandum to the Department of Home and Territories dated 10 February, 1926, loc cit.

[57] Sydney Morning Herald, 91311927.

[58] Tranter, R R op cit.