The State Library of NSW recently announced work is underway to conserve and restore Australia’s first public sculpture, the Sir Richard Bourke statue that is located outside the Mitchell Library building. This week on 2SER Breakfast Nicole Cama and Tess Connery looked at the history behind the statue.
Richard Bourke was the eighth governor of New South Wales. A retired Irish soldier, he was appointed governor of New South Wales in 1831.
During his six-year-tenure in Sydney, Bourke made several decisions that have had long reaching consequences in Australia, including some popular reforms that were progressive for the time (and caused controversy among some of the more conservative members of society). One of his first actions was to propose the extension of trial by jury and to replace the military juries with civil juries in criminal cases, relating to principal of rule of law. He allowed greater opportunities for emancipists and formed legislation which restricted punishments meted out by magistrates against convicts and his Church Act ensured equal government assistance for of religious denominations. He also approved the reintroduction of theatrical performances and attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish government schools and elective government.
Upon his departure from Sydney in December 1837, a large crowd of well wishers gathered and ran along the shores, cheering him farewell. The Sydney Monitor newspaper concluded: ‘Whatever might have been the political opinions of those in attendance, the general feeling was, that the Colony had lost a friend and benefactor.’1
A commemorative statue of Bourke ‘as a lasting memorial of the estimation in which his public services and private virtues are cherished by the Colonists of New South Wales; and that a public subscription be forthwith entered into to carry that object into force‘ 2 was proposed even before he had left Sydney, and a huge number of colonists supported and contributed to the plan. As the colony did not have the resources available for casting a bronze sculpture, Bourke’s son in London represented the subscription committee in Sydney and commissioned sculptor Edward Hodges Baily in 1838 to create the work.
The first public sculpture in Australia was unveiled in Sydney by Governor Gipps in front of huge crowds on Monday 11 April 1842, which had been made a public holiday for the occasion, with ‘Groups gaily dressed in their holiday attire…strolling about the town, whilst other groups of sturdy sires and portly matrons in carts and on foot came pouring in from the suburbs to hail the festive day‘.3
The statue of Bourke originally looked out from its huge plinth over the Domain and the Gardens, located ‘on the rising ground at the entrance of the Government Domain from Bent Street’, but was moved in 1925 to its current location in front of the Mitchell Library.4
1. Sir Richard Bourke’s Departure. (1837, December 6). The Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), p. 2 (EVENING). http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32158259
2. PUBLIC MEETING (1837, December 5). The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), p. 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36856179
3. Sir Richard Bourke’s Statue. (1842, April 12). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), p. 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2556221
4. SIR RICHARD IS HIMSELF AGAIN (1925, June 5). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), p. 1 (FINAL EXTRA). http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article224040940
State Library of New South Wales blog: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/statue-governor-bourke
Michael Hill, How a statue can shape a city: Sydney’s first monument, Governor Sir Richard Bourke (1842), “Quotation, Quotation”: Papers of the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand, ed. G. Hartoonian and J. Ting, University of Canberra: Canberra, 2017 https://www.canberra.edu.au/about-uc/faculties/arts-design/newsandevents/upcoming-fad-conferences/sahanz-2017/papers/documents/Hill-M-How-a-Statue-Can-Shape-a-City.pdf
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!
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