Clive Murray-White working on the Alfred Felton Centenary Commission sculpture, 2004.

Few acquisitions by the Felton Bequest have offered such drama, such expectancy and such a direct tribute to Alfred Felton.

In its 100-year history the Felton Bequest had never commissioned a sculpture and, in its art acquisitions, it had rarely followed fashion. Yet it was not surprising when it made a decision to commission a monumental marble sculpture of Alfred Felton.

Alfred Felton died on 8 January 1904. In 2002, two years before the centenary of his death, I had put a proposal to the Felton Bequests’ Committee that a wonderful opportunity existed to celebrate the first 100 years of Alfred Felton’s Bequest by offering a sculpture in his memory to the National Gallery of Victoria.1 Submission to the FBC, 7 November 2002, recommending commemoration of the Felton Bequests’ centenary after consultation with the NGV Director and aiming for completion of a sculpture by 8 January 2004.

There had been previous proposals. In 1912 Dr Alexander Leeper, an NGV Trustee, had proposed ‘that a bronze statue of Alfred Felton be obtained’.2 NGV Trustee minutes, May 1912. In February 1933 consideration had been given by the Felton Bequest to acquire ‘a notable piece of sculpture’, to mark the centenary of Melbourne in 1934, a proposal later modified to be a statue of Alfred Felton.3 FBC minutes, 3 & 22 March 1933. Neither proposal had proceeded.

There had been several portraits of Alfred Felton, including a well-known one by Sir John Longstaff, although painted after Felton’s death. Another, by J. C. Waite, had been acquired bythe NGV on 30 October 1905 for £1,000; although by a lesser-known artist, it had been painted from life and had been considered at the time by his former business partner, F. S. Grimwade, to be ‘a good and faithful likeness’.4 ibid., 30 October 1905.

But there had never been a bust or sculpture of Felton, despite his importance as the NGV’s most celebrated benefactor and Australia’s first great philanthropist.

On 7 November 2002 the Felton Bequests’ Committee met with the NGV Director and there was a general enthusiasm to commission a sculpture of Alfred Felton for the 2004 centenary celebrations. It was agreed that it should be a work of art that would stand on its own merits and that the commission should be supervised by a sub-committee consisting of Dr Gerard Vaughan (NGV Director), Dr Alison Inglis (Felton Committee & NGV Trustee), and me (Felton Committee) as its Chairman.5 ibid., 7 November 2002.

There were a number of considerations. Should it be a work by an Australian sculptor or an international sculptor? Should the choice be constrained by the fact that Felton was an Australian? Should it be a bust or a larger-than-life figure? Or should it be a more general sculpture to honour the Felton Centenary? How should the sculptor to be selected?

By 27 February 2003 there was unanimous agreement that an Australian sculptor should be commissioned to produce a work that would be a monument celebrating philanthropy and genius rather than specifically a representational bust.6 ibid., 27 February 2003.

It was also agreed that a shortlist of Australian artists should be invited to submit concept designs.7 FBC Sub-Committee minutes, 6 May 2003. From these, two or three selected sculptors would be invited to produce maquettes, from which a sculptor would be chosen for the commission. Fees would be paid for submissions at each stage of the selection process. All concept designs and maquettes would be acquired by the Bequest for the NGV.

A year later the Felton Bequests’ Centenary Sculpture Sub-Committee met to consider the three final maquettes. All were of a very high standard, even though quite different in conception and style. Each sculptor had clearly studied and thought about the life and times, background and personality of Alfred Felton.

There was an imaginative installation evoking the minutiae of Felton’s life by Simeon Nelson, a dramatic and towering sculpture by Charles Robb and an oversized, carved marble head by Clive Murray-White. Finally, on 5 February 2004, the sub-committee selected Murray-White. His portrayal of Felton was generously larger than life and captured the imagination as a timeless sculpture. It was unanimously agreed that the resultant work would make a stunning addition to the NGV’s sculpture collection.8 ibid., 5 February 2004.

On Monday 12 July it was time to view the still unfinished yet well advanced work at Clive Murray-White’s studio at Cowwarr near Sale in eastern Victoria. It was a historic three-hour journey and I was joined by Gerard Vaughan, Deputy Director Frances Lindsay and the artist’s dealer Charles Nodrum.

On arrival Murray-White and his partner Carolyn told of the selection of a massive piece of fine-grained, distinctly coloured Chillagoe marble from a site some 150 km west of Cairns. Murray-White had been passionate about selecting a large piece of marble which he envisaged would suit a colossal sculptural head and ‘would be imbued with Felton’s generosity of spirit and caring for the community’.9 From Clive Murray-White’s submission, 12 August 2003.

Before putting forward his concept designs, Murray-White had read Professor John Poynter’s scholarly biography Mr Felton’s Bequests, and had been struck by Felton’s own words about ‘the human composite thing (body, soul and spirit) called man’. This convinced the artist that photographs of Felton would act as the main basis for the overall look of the sculpture and he commented that in order to ‘give the work some substance, depth and a genuine sense of life’, he would aim at an amalgam or ‘a reasoned invention by incorporating a wide range of references’. At the same time, he knew that he had ‘to avoid the funereal air of a posthumous sculpture’.10 ibid.

Although Murray-White did not know whether or not he had won the commission, he had become so fascinated by the image and aura of Felton that he was galvanised into starting work immediately. This was not to presume the outcome, but so that he could work more freely without what he called ‘the burden of responsibility which goes with having the job’.11 ibid.

In his submission to the Felton Bequests’ Sub-Committee he had written that his first reference would be ‘Michelangelo’s portrait of himself as Nicodemus from the Duomo Pietà, one of art’s great caring figures. Its overall humanism is what I hope to bring to the portrait’. His second reference point was Michelangelo’s Dusk from the Tomb of Lorenzo de’Medici, which ‘offers both familiarity and a good overall head shape. It is the blend of these two that will give the lead to the monument’s overall form’.12 ibid.

For his third reference point Murray-White selected his own work, Large male head, as being approximately the right size and having the correct kind of presence for the Felton head. Next, as a reference point of a living person, he chose his good friend Peter Ries with whom to compare Felton’s features. Murray-White said he believed this would ‘ensure that a genuine sense of life can find its way into the sculpture’.13 ibid.

Finally, he noted that he ‘chose the portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Rodin for a number of reasons beyond the fact that it conveyed the spirit of Felton’s own time’. To Murray-White it seemed softer than the Michelangelo models and he added ‘it captures some sense of Britishness that I think Felton should possess’.14 ibid.

When I first approached the sculpture, I had mixed feelings and emotions. For 150 years members of my family had been closely connected with Alfred Felton and his bequest. At the time of his death Felton was not seen as the visionary and hero that he has become. But now, 100 years after his death, here he was!

I was filled with admiration that one sculpture could capture so much of Felton’s persona. From the front I saw a kindly man, yet, at a distance, appearing somewhat mischievous. From Felton’s right-hand side, the high brow conveyed a sense of intellect. From his left-hand side, it conveyed a sense of determination and his entrepreneurial spirit.

As we left the sculpture, Gerard Vaughan said to me, with ebullience and more than a little relief, ‘There was always a slight fear that it may not have worked out’.

When the completed sculpture is unveiled within the NGV in October 2004, the public will be able to judge if it has worked out. The avant-garde will no doubt say it is too conservative and the conservatives will say it is too avant-garde! If so, it will have worked out.

Andrew Grimwade, tenth Chairman of the Felton Bequests’ Committee (in 2004).

Notes

Sir Andrew Grimwade is the tenth Chairman of the Felton Bequests’ Committee (FBC). He is an Emeritus Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria and was the President of Trustees from 1976 to 1990 and is the longest serving trustee (from 1964).

The Felton Bequest provides half of its income to charities (particularly those supporting women and children) and the other half to acquire works of art for the National Gallery of Victoria. The Felton Bequest has made significant contributions to the Victorian community in accordance with the will of Alfred Felton (1831–1904).

1     Submission to the FBC, 7 November 2002, recommending commemoration of the Felton Bequests’ centenary after consultation with the NGV Director and aiming for completion of a sculpture by 8 January 2004.

2     NGV Trustee minutes, May 1912.

3     FBC minutes, 3 & 22 March 1933.

4     ibid., 30 October 1905.

5     ibid., 7 November 2002.

6     ibid., 27 February 2003.

7     FBC Sub-Committee minutes, 6 May 2003.

8     ibid., 5 February 2004.

9     From Clive Murray-White’s submission, 12 August 2003.

10     ibid.

11     ibid.

12     ibid.

13     ibid.

14     ibid.