8. James Gilbert & Percival Ball Sir Redmond Barry 1887

James Gilbert & Percival Ball Sir Redmond Barry, bronze, granite base, 1887. Collection of the State Library of Victoria. Photographer unknown.

Key Themes: Traditional Statuary; Earliest Type of Public Art in Melbourne

Inquiry Questions:

  1. Do you what this type of sculpture is called? How do you think it was made?
  2. The statue is located front-and-centre within the SLV forecourt. Why do you think this person’s likeness has been given such a prominent position at the SLV?
  3. The statue of Sir Redmond Barry is supported by a tall, wide and heavy granite plinth, whereas the nearby statue of Charles LaTrobe is on a small, low plinth. How do the different heights and volumes of each plinth alter the audience’s encounter with each statue?
  4. Bronze is a very durable alloy of tin and copper and can last two-thousand years or longer. Formulate a critical judgement: Do you think this statue will accurately reflect today’s society when seen by Melburnians in the year 4018?

This bronze statue depicts Sir Redmond Barry (1813-1880), who was both a judge and the founder of the State Library of Victoria (SLV). It is of the same period, style and material to  the statue of Burke and Wills in the city square, by Charles Summers, which is the oldest piece of public art in Melbourne. This artwork was produced by two artists, but was not a collaboration. It was modelled by James Gilbert, who also began sculpting the statue, however Gilbert took ill and died before completion. Percival Ball took on the challenge of finishing the piece.

Bronze is a very traditional material for public artworks such as statues, sculptures, or relief panels. Casting bronze is a complicated and expensive process that requires specialists and access to a foundry. When a figure is sculpted and cast in bronze for display in public space, the viewer can assume that this person was considered very important to society – otherwise, why would so much trouble and expense have been taken to immortalise them?

Sir Redmond Barry not only initiated the SLV as a public institution but also dictated many of the details of the building, the selection of books, and even the colour of the books’ bindings. Barry felt such a sense of ownership and personal connection to the SLV that he even added his family coat of arms to the front of the library, above the main entrance. When councillors questioned him on this, because they thought it was odd that a public facility should feature a private citizen’s family crest, Barry responded that he was “merely continuing a tradition that dated back to Roman times, when Senators emblazoned public buildings with a record of their achievements.” This tells us that Barry thought of himself rather grandly, as part of a lineage of wealthy and powerful civic figures dating back to antiquity.

Unveiling the statue of Sir Redmond Barry, 23rd August 1887, by Mayor William Cain. Photograph by Pierce, 1887.

Historical Note: Barry was the presiding judge in the trial of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. When Barry sentenced Kelly to be hung, with the traditional words “May God have mercy on your soul” Kelly replied “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.” Barry died twelve days after the trial.

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