Deborah Beck, Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor.

NewSouth Publishing, NSW: 2017 272 pages. Ills. (B/W and sepia)
ISBN: 9781742235325 (paperback); 978174228080 (ePDF). RRP A$49.99

As ANZAC day approaches on 25 April 2017, commemorative services will be held around Australia. Many will attend solemn gatherings at the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the national capital. At these and in other city locations, those who look around are likely to see extraordinary sculptured figures, busts and friezes, all the inspired work of the sculptor, Rayner Hoff (1894-1937).

Deborah Beck’s excellent biography of Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor, reveals important insights and ‘the untold story’ of Rayner Hoff’s life and his work. She covers his early life on the Isle of Man, his obvious and precocious artistic talents, his work with his stonemason father, his pre-war training at the Nottingham School of Art from 1910, his war experiences, and his post-war training at London’s Royal College of Art. And then, importantly, she deals with Hoff’s life and his works in Australia.

With his war service in mind, it’s worth recalling that Rayner Hoff, now celebrated as Australia’s greatest sculptor, enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force Army in 1916. One hundred years ago, in April 1917, he was seconded to ‘a special branch of the Corps of Royal Engineers (RE)’. On the basis of his artistic skills, Hoff was promoted to ‘Sapper Draftsman (Topographical) – Skilled’, utilising his fine drafting abilities producing highly detailed trench maps for use by British troops and allies on the Western Front during horrendous battles, including Passchendaele and the Somme. He was in France at the war’s end in November 1918.

Hoff was demobilised in October 1919. Years later, he stated that he ‘had seen too much of war to glorify it’ (p. 44). While his statement was undoubtedly truthful, his sculptures in war memorials and sanctuaries, as elsewhere, are glorious in their classical figurative forms, emotional and sensual bodies. The Great War spared him and provided him with an ex-service award that allowed him to attend London’s prestigious Royal College of Art where he studied sculpture and modelling from 1920 until his graduation in 1922.

Beck tells of Hoff’s ambitions, his family and family ties, his travels in Europe, his mentors, friends and teachers, his exhibitions and international awards, and his valuable time spent in Rome in early 1923 having won the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Sculpture and the Prix de Rome.  All this the talented Rayner Hoff achieved before he turned twenty five.

Then, surprisingly, Hoff left England for Australia with his wife Annis and baby daughter Sandra, having accepted an offer to work in Sydney as a teacher of Antique Drawing and Sculpture at the East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst. The Hoffs arrived in Sydney in July 1923. As Beck remarks, ‘England’s loss was Australia’s gain as [Hoff] went on to influence the Australian art world in a profound way’. (p. 75).

Rayner Hoff loved Sydney. He loved its beaches, the artistic challenges waiting for him, the city itself, his talented friends and colleagues and his students, the exciting commissions he won, and the opportunities for travel to exotic locations in Australia. Hoff was both a creator and an initiator. In short, Hoff loved his work, he loved his family and he grasped every opportunity to promote sculpture and sculptors. Hoff was part of the formative group responsible for the naming and establishment of the National Art School in 1926. He nurtured the talented.

Throughout his life, Hoff worked with bureaucrats, administrators, government officials, future Prime Ministers, philanthropists, collectors, as well as students, many of them women, police constables, car manufacturers, artists, poets, writers, architects, designers, surveyors and civic personages. These connections are illustrated and explained.

This biography is lavishly illustrated with photographs providing strong visual context to support the biography’s fluent and chronological narrative. Beck has provided useful footnotes, a detailed bibliography and an index. Hoff’s sculptural works, held in public and private collections around Australia and beyond, are a testament to his own enormous talent. He left a strong and lasting legacy. His life ended abruptly and tragically in 1937 with a painful and fatal attack of pancreatitis. He was only 42 years old. Beck remarks that ‘Rayner Hoff has not been forgotten by the art world in Australia, but 80 years after his death, his name is not known among the general public.’ (p. 242).

That may be so in name, but anyone who has ever owned a Holden car or seen one parked in a street will be familiar with the ‘Lion Rampant’ insignia and badge that has sat proudly on Holden bonnets. Would many realise that the original design and bronze cast was created by Rayner Hoff for the Holden Motor Company in 1926? The pressed metal replicas were fixed to every vehicle from 1928 to 1939. The design has been updated, yet ironically, as Beck observes, ‘this iconic emblem could possibly be one of Hoff’s most visible works …’ (p. 150).

I enjoyed this important biography and having my consciousness raised. I will now look much more carefully at Rayner Hoff’s sculptures in familiar and unfamiliar locations. Deborah Beck has provided art lovers and the general public with a highly readable biography of Hoff’s interesting and inspiring life, his connections, his talent and his work. This is a highly recommended read.

Postscript: For those who missed a recent two-week exhibition held in March celebrating the work of Rayner Hoff curated by Deborah Beck for the National Art School in Sydney, you can read John McDonald’s article on it for the Sydney Morning Herald here.

© Dr Suzanne Rickard
30 March 2017

Deborah Beck’s entries on the National Art School and Sydney’s artists’ balls for the Dictionary of Sydney can be found here.

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