Occasionals – ‘Grotesques’ at Queensland University

A draft for a section of Meanjin to Brisvegas: Brisbane’s journey from colonial backwater to new world city


Brisbane 2006

Art too often takes itself too seriously. It takes itself even more seriously when it feels unappreciated and when experimentation is frowned upon. It was ironic then that that most staid of institutions, the University of Queensland, should have been   poking benign fun at it in the august portals of the Great Court at St Lucia, in Brisbane. There, nestled around the archways above the cloisters that enclose the two and a quarter hectares of the Court are 48 ‘grotesques’ – carvings of heads of interesting people and animals – and several friezes.

The choice of St Lucia for the University campus in the 1920s was controversial. Many saw it as being too far from town. But once decided and eventually acted upon, in 1935, the government-appointed architects, Hennessy, Hennessy and Co, designed what a University pamphlet describes as  a ‘great semi-circular quadrangle around which the various buildings are arranged, all connected by means of an arcade, enabling students to reach any portion whatsoever’.

The Government of the day, under Premier William Forgan Smith – who had the main building named after him – decreed that the buildings were to be ‘original in conception, monumental in design and embodying the Australian spirit of art with English culture’ to reflect the progress that had been made in Queensland.

It must have been the directive to be ‘monumental’ that led to the grotesques and the statues. The ‘English’ no doubt led to statues of Shakespeare, Darwin, Chaucer and the quote from Disraeli used in the British parliament when he was leader of the opposition to Prime Minister Gladstone. He was critical of a proposal to exclude some subjects from a university curriculum to avoid sectarian tension. A university, he said, should be ‘a place of light, of liberty and of learning’. This inscription is carved in the stonework above the main entrance to the Forgan Smith Building.

The buildings of the Great Court are clad in distinctive sandstone that was quarried at Helidon, 140 kilometres west of Brisbane. The builders made no attempt to match the sandstone so that the effect is a range of colours – purples, lavenders and violets, creams, yellowish beiges and browns – that are seen to best effect when the stone is wet from rain.

All told, it took 40 years for the Great Court project to be completed.

The grotesques and the statues represent the Very Great and the Good. As well as the English ‘greats’, there’s also Plato, Justinium, Mendel and Lavoisier. But with apologies to those great ghosts, it’s the more cryptic grotesques that capture the imagination or tickle the fancy.

About half the grotesques were sculpted by John Muller, clearly a man with a keen sense of humour. And I believe, without any evidence, that he took it upon himself to inject the ‘Australian spirit of Art’ the government had called for into his work. The life and humour he injected into his work on these caricatures in stone is suggestive of and certainly reflects Australian humour.

Muller had developed a sound grounding in carving and stonework in his birthplace Dresden before arriving in Brisbane in 1911 at the age of 38. He worked on the Treasury Building and the Brisbane City Hall before starting work on the Great Court in 1939 when he was 66 years old, beyond retirement age.

There’s no record of the instructions Muller was given and a fire that burnt down his house in 1952, a year before he died, destroyed all his own paper work. Many of the grotesques are anonymous, with a suspicion they represent someone. But without any records, identification is now done by supposition. Anyway, the University thinks he was given a free hand. He also worked on a number of friezes that depicted Queensland history and university history but managed to keep his impish humour well in check on that section of the work.

It was on the grotesques that he let himself roam more freely. So there are various grotesques on the Main Tower identified by the University only as ‘a scholar with a scroll’ or ‘an unidentified academic wearing a mortarboard’, or ‘a musical horn blower’.

Then there is ‘a gloomy scholar or teacher, possibly meant to represent J.D. Story, the University’s Vice Chancellor from 1938 to 1960’. Clearly not a man renowned for his sense of humour.

Above the Arts Building entrance there’s a grotesque of a man with a hammer, believed to be a construction worker on the site. Next to him there’s a man with an umbrella, believed to be Mr Bell, a clerk of works who was regularly on site and who always carried an umbrella whether it was raining or not. This is alongside one showing a jovial man in a hat, thought to be Dr Colin Clark, one of Australia’s most distinguished early economists – he had worked with John Maynard Keynes in London.

At the Law Building site there’s a bespectacled man with a beer mug in his hand. It’s believed this was based on a Mr Robinson, a crane driver on the construction site who was always joking with Muller about beer.

There are several grotesques that might be called generic. There’s a footballer, a sailor, a monk, a warrior, an old man laughing and a scribe, among others. There’s a mythical reptilian creature and a frog holding a University of Queensland shield. There is also a philosopher with his face bandaged. The University reckons this either indicates toothache or, since it is close to the Law entrance, that it’s a talkative advocate with jaw ache.

And was Muller having a dig at university life when he carved a sage of Laputa, a character from Gulliver’s Travels who pursued visionary projects to the neglect of practical concerns? Perhaps it was more of a warning.

Muller died in 1953 at the age of 80. He’d been working on the site until the end. By then about half the grotesques had been done and carving stopped for 20 years. In 1976 the University decided it wanted a few more on the newer buildings. They selected Rhyl Hinwood to take over Muller’s work. She didn’t get the same freedom of choice enjoyed by Muller, but fortunately the University maintained the mood and style set by the earlier Dresden master.

One of Hinwood’s first sculptures was that of Muller who she did at the Law building, apparently using a small clay model that Muller had himself done. Otherwise Hinwood’s work mostly represented particular academics who had graced the University, like Geology Professor Dorothy Hill, in 1960 the first woman appointed to a full professorship at an Australian university. There are a couple of exceptions. One is a grotesque of Donald Russell who had joined the university as a cleaner in 1946 and soon after became the caretaker. Another is of William McKenzie a member of the Jinabara tribe (his Aboriginal name was Gaiarbau) who assisted in University research and helped in recording music and legends.

I guess because Hinwood was working in an age that took itself more seriously and maybe she had to report to a committee (and they only deliver impish art by mistake), but her work seems to be more accurately representational of its subjects and less of a caricature. Her work is very good but it’s not as much fun as the earlier work by Muller and his helpers.

There’s another marvellous aspect to all this art around the Great Court. It does not shout out for attention. It is there, in the same sandstone as the rest of the building. You have to look for it. It seems much more in keeping with the spirit of enquiry and perhaps that’s also representative of traditional Australian spirit.

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