State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 42 Spring 1988


Melbourne'S First Monument: Charles Summers’ “Burke And Wills

The Expedition

On 21 April, 1861, three men — Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills and John King — staggered into a deserted camp on Cooper's Creek, in the southwest corner of Queensland. From this site, known simply as Camp LXV, they had set out some four months earlier with an extra man, Charles Gray, and trekked northwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It had been the final leg of a journey that had begun in Melbourne, making them the first white men to cross the continent from South to North.
Frustratingly, a mangrove swamp had blocked their final progress, and they had had to turn back without actually sighting the ocean. This final ‘dash’ to the Gulf, which had overdrawn their strength and resources — fatally so in the case of Gray — was one of Burke's many errors of judgement as leader of the expedition. The three men who returned to Camp LXV at Cooper's Creek were exhausted, their clothes worn to rags: for some days they had been living on handfuls of flour.
The remainder of the expedition, under the command of William Brahe, had been left in camp with instructions to wait three months for Burke's return. They waited the three months, and another five weeks for good measure, but with supplies reaching a dangerous minimum, they finally began their own return, abandoning the camp some nine hours before Burke, Wills and King arrived.
All that greeted the three explorers was a blaze cut in a tree, with the instruction ‘Dig’. They unearthed a cache containing supplies and a sealed message, dated that day. Terrible as their anguish must have been when they realized the truth, their exhaustion was still greater: knowing they were less than a day's ride behind the others, they still made no attempt to pursue them.
The following day, they set out southwest along the creek towards Adelaide on what they hoped would be a shorter, easier journey than the direct return to Melbourne. Mercifully, they were never to know that Brahe, two and a half weeks later, returned to Camp LXV for one last check, where he managed to completely overlook the traces they had left of their presence, not even bothering to dig up the cache to see if it had been disturbed. He turned back towards Melbourne, certain that Burke and the others had perished in the far North.
Burke, Wills and King travelled slowly along the creek, subsisting, now that their rations had been exhausted, on a paste made from the seeds of a wild grass called Nardoo, which filled the stomach, but provided little nutrition. Burke, wrong to the end, antagonized the local aborigines who were more than willing to share their food. Eventually the explorers realized they would never have the strength to strike out overland: Wills lay down to die on or about 27 June and Burke followed a few days later. King befriended the aborigines and remained in the area for two and a half months until he was found by a rescue party sent out from Melbourne.
The news, telegraphed from Bendigo by Brahe, reached Melbourne on 2 November, 1861, unleashing a storm of public grief and recrimination. Three days later, in the Legislative Assembly, John O'Shanassy submitted a motion without notice: That this House, having heard with profound regret the melancholy intelligence of the death of Mr. Richard O'Hara Bourke (sic) and Mr. J. W. Wills (sic) … hereby records its deep sense of their labours and expresses its earnest desire that every mark of respect should be shown to their memory by a public funeral when their remains should reach Melbourne, and by the erection of a suitable monument, commemorative of achievements so well calculated to advance the cause of science and civilization’.
Richard Heales, the Chief Secretary, replied that it was the Government's intention to make a full enquiry into all aspects of the failed expedition, including ‘a permanent memorial to the leader of the expedition and his deceased companions’.1

The Commission

Whatever their grief at the personal tragedy of the expedition, the news of a monument was presumably welcome to the handful of sculptors in Melbourne at that time, the most accomplished of whom was the Englishman Charles Summers. Summers had come to Melbourne in 1852 after a brilliant career in the Royal Academy schools. He had been awarded a scholarship to study in Rome, but overwork in the damp, polluted air of London had brought on consumption, for which the prescribed treatment was a long sea voyage and removal to a drier climate; in
search of a cure, he followed his brothers to the newly opened Victorian goldfields.
After an unprofitable sojourn on the Tarnagulla diggings, he returned to Melbourne and established his studio in Collins Street. In 1856, he was appointed in charge of the interior sculptural decoration of the new Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council chambers. Other than this, his principal work was in portrait busts and medallions.
He leapt at the unexpected chance to execute a major work: within a month of the first official mention of a monument, he was writing to O'Shanassy, who was now the Chief Secretary, declaring that ‘to the instructions received from the late Administration, I have prepared a design for a Monument to be erected to the late explorers Burke and Wills’.2 This is presumably the elaborate design which was reproduced on the front page of the Illustrated Australian Mail for 25 December, 1861.3 Summers’ eminence as an artist, his membership of public bodies, and his practice as a portraitist all brought him into contact with men of influence, and it is not unlikely that the ‘instructions’ he received were the result of some degree of lobbying.
His eagerness can be easily understood: his contemporaries placed a special value on monumental sculpture, which was seen as the supreme proof of a sculptor's worth. As the Argus observed when Summers finally secured the commission, his ‘skill as a sculptor is attested by his having carried off the gold medal of the Royal Academy but has been hitherto frittered away in busts and medallions. An opportunity, however, is now afforded him of distinguishing himself…’4
But Summers was not to have the field to himself so easily. His model was mentioned in Parliament in January 1862 when Dr. L. L. Smith asked if the Government ‘intended to erect a monument after the design submitted to the late Governor by Mr. Summers the sculptor, and approved of by His Excellency the Governor and many members of the Legislature?’ In reply, Mr. O'Shanassy ‘was not prepared to say what shape it would take until Parliament had come to a vote on the subject.’5
Summers also had a rival. In February 1862 the Argus announced that ‘a design for a monument to Burke and Wills has been completed by Mr. Camroux, a young sculptor at present residing in this city, which in conception and treatment displays a great merit. The two explorers are represented in a standing posture, Burke with his left arm around the neck of his lieutenant, and pointing with his right to the distance. They stand upon a square pedestal supported by four figures, emblematical of the four chief industries of Victoria, on the four sides of which are displayed, in relief, the principal scenes in the career of our heroic explorers.’6
In March, Melbourne found itself with two representations of the death of Burke to choose from. Summers, with a Mr. Kreitmayer, had already modelled a waxwork tableau of the Return to Cooper's Creek for the Museum of Illustration, 124 Bourke Street. When he modelled an additional scene of the Death of Burke, he found himself in competition with Camroux, modelling the same tableau for Madame Sohier's Waxworks, just down the road at No. 95. ‘Burke Expiring in the Arms of King. This is really a masterpiece of art, modelled by that very superior sculptor Sydney Camroux…’ proclaims an advertisement which goes on to warn that ‘This group challenges any would-be imitators for £500 sterling.’7
Heads of Burke were also in evidence: in August 1862, Camroux exhibited a pair of cabinet busts of Burke and Wills. The Argus found the likenesses less than striking, but considered this the most ‘pleasing’ memorial to the explorers yet seen. In September, a Mr. J. Sullivan exhibited a life-size bust of Burke which was thought ‘creditably executed’.8
Summers continued to lobby the Government. In July 1862, he was again writing to the Chief Secretary, reminding him of the model already in existence (which he variously calls a ‘sketch’ and a ‘design’, but which was presumably a maquette, a three dimentional model), and advising him that another was in preparation.9
The sum of £4,000 had been voted by Parliament to finance the construction of a monument10 and it was perhaps in consideration of this amount that the decision was taken to make the sculpture commission competitive. In the Victorian Government Gazette of 18 November, 1862, the following announcement appeared:
Monument to Burke and Wills
Designs are invited for a monument to Burke and Wills, to consist of a group of Statuary on a Pedestal.
The Monument to be placed in the Parliament House Reserve, at the southern extremity. Designs to be modelled in clay, or cast in plaster: to be not less than one sixth of the full size and to be delivered at the Department of Public Works before three p.m. on 1st December.
The Designs must have mottoes attatched and must be accompanied by sealed envelopes containing the names of artists and superscribed

Figure 1:
Charles Summers (1825–1878)
Maquette for the Burke and Wills monument, 1862
Plaster. 118cm × 70cm × 54.2cm
Warrnambool Art Gallery. Gift of Mrs. Andrew Kerr, 1887

Figure 2:
Charles Summers
Maquette (?) for the Burke and Wills monument. 1862
Plaster. 72.5cm × 35.5cm × 29.2cm
Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne

on the outside with the same mottoes.
Competitors must satisfy the Board appointed to make the selection that they are able to carry out the design complete for the sum of £4,000.
W. P. Wilson
Chairman of the Board
31st October, 1862
The Board, in this case, was a ‘Board of Design’ (sometimes also called the ‘Committee of Taste’ by the Press), appointed by the Government. Its Chairman, William Parkinson Wilson, was founding Professor of Mathematics at the University of Melbourne and possessed ‘an extensive knowledge of architecture and the fine arts’: he served on the Royal Commission on the Fine Arts in 1863–4.11
The Board members were professional men with a strong amateur interest in art. Frederick Wilkinson was a judge of the Equity Court and first President of the Victorian Artists’ Society.12 Dr. Alexander Fisher was a Council member of the Melbourne Art Union. C. J. Griffith was a pastoralist and parliamentarian, whose service on the Board was cut short by his death in 1863. Dr. William Gilbee was Senior Surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital. His bequest of £1,000 to the National Gallery of Victoria ‘for sending an artist to England to paint a picture of Australian historical interest’ was to result, interestingly enough, in John Longstaffs ‘Arrival of Burke and Wills at Cooper's Creek’ (1907). James Smith was a journalist and art critic who is today best remembered for his unfavourable review of the ‘9 × 5 Impression’ exhibition of 1889. William Henry Archer was the Registrar General, a statistician who practised sculpture and painting as a recreation. William Wardell, the famous Gothic Revival architect, was Inspector General of Public Works at the time.13
The Board received five designs and within a few days had announced their unanimous verdict in favour of Charles Summers’ entry.14 The Argus felt that the Board's duty had been ‘a comparatively easy one’, and later observed that ‘public opinion seems to have ratified the choice of the Committee’.15 The excellence of Summers’ model, according to the Illustrated Melbourne Post was ‘obvious at a glance’.16
Summers’ competition maquette has always been identified with the bronzed plaster model in the Warrnambool Art Gallery (figure 1), and it was as such that it entered the Gallery's collection in 1887. However there is another, smaller plaster group of Burke and Wills in the possession of the Royal Society of Victoria (figure 2) and it has recently been argued that this is the competition maquette and that the Warrnambool model is a second maquette, made by Summers to satisfy the Board of Design's uncertainty over his ability to fashion so large a monument from so small a model.17
If this is in fact the relationship between the two models, a number of stylistic anomalies must be resolved. The Royal Society model, supposedly the earlier, resembles the finished monument more closely than does the ‘second’, Warrnambool, model. Moreover it has, at least to the present author, the finicky appearence of a small-scale copy in an unsophisticated medium, after a larger original. Of the two, it is the Warrnambool model — fluid in modelling and unmarked by excessive detail — that has the appearance of a first sketch: the figures of Burke and Wills, slight in physique and with the balding, ovoid, chinless physiognomies they bore in life, have not yet developed into the Michaelangelesque Titians who occupy the finished monument and who appear before us in miniature in the Royal Society maquette. It seems unlikely that the comparative naturalism of the Warrnambool maquette — so anomalous if it is indeed the later model — can be attributed to the work of repairers, as has been suggested. Moreover, an ‘artist's impression’ of the proposed monument (figure 3), published in the Melbourne Leader soon after the judging of the competition, and presumably based on the competition maquette, bears significant points of resemblance to the Warrnambool group.18
Whatever the priority of these models, we are fortunate to have them: of the maquettes submitted by Summers’ four rivals — whose very names, with only one sure exception, are unknown to us — nothing seems to have survived beyond their brief mention in the contemporary press. The Melbourne Herald described them thus:
‘The second design in order of merit represented Victoria as a winged female, crowning two well-executed figures of Burke and Wills, but the treatment was scarcely aesthetical enough, and the design was better adapted for a gigantic French clock than for the purpose for which the money was voted by Parliament.’
‘Another of the designs made Burke look like a gold-digger coming out of the pit of the Royal with an opera-glass in his hand, while a fourth is familiar to a large number of our readers as having been exhibited in Mr. Wilkie's window; the dress and treatment were of the most commonplace description. The fifth was rather a curiosity
than a work of art.’19
The Herald went into more detail in their leader of 12 December, 1862, according to which, one of the unsuccessful designs consisted of ‘two relatives of the immortal Chadband, [a nondenominational clergyman in Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, given to florid gesticulation] leering at an old woman with several nugget bags, and surrounded by bales of wool in impossible positions, and many monsters bearing distant resemblances to lions, emeus (sic), camel-leopards, abnormal kangaroos and peculiar sheep. Nor was this very striking work eclipsed by another, in what may be termed the packingcase school of art, wherein a digger, a farmer, a squatter and a maker of colonial wine, were standing severally at the four corners of a box of cuboid proportions, the box being surmounted by two individuals whose avocation was at the least uncertain! The description of this latter work bears a strong resemblance to what we know of Sydney Camroux's model — the two explorers standing ‘upon a square pedestal supported by four figures, emblematical of the four chief industries of Victoria’ — and so it would seem reasonable to conclude that Camroux was an entrant in the competition.
Summers invited all the maquettes to be displayed in the forthcoming annual Fine Arts Exhibition at his studio, but only Mr. Gilbert, the second-place getter, seems to have obliged.20 This was presumably James Gilbert, the Melbourne sculptor of whom almost nothing is known save that he modelled the statue of Redmond Barry now standing in the State Library forecourt but died before he could complete it, leaving this task to Percival Ball.
The Illustrated Melbourne Post's review of the exhibition allows us to form some conception of this unlucky artist's work: ‘Two figures, seated back to back upon steps of a corresponding level’, and crowned with wreaths by ‘Fame or Glory or whatever … ’21

The Monument in Progress

Some two years of work now stretched ahead of Summers. Firstly, the full size monument had to be worked out in malleable clay supported by a wooden armature; then, to create a more durable working version, the clay model would be cast in plaster. A mould would then be made in sections from this plaster version and into this reassembled mould would be poured the molten bronze to form the final work. All this would have been labour enough for a sculptor in London, able to call upon the specialist craftsmen, the plasterers and bronze casters whose expertise was considered an indispensable adjunct to the skill of the artist. For a lone sculptor in a colonial city to have faced such a prospect was nothing short of heroic.
Summers set to work, leaving the Board of Design to secure a site for the Monument, a topic which had been debated even before the commission had been advertised. At a meeting of the Melbourne City Council on 29 September, 1862, a. request was read from the Chief Secretary for a site on the intersection of Collins and Russell Streets. When Council next met (6 October, 1862), the Public Works Committee reported that the proposed monument would cause an obstruction to traffic and recommended denial of the request. Nevertheless, the site was granted, conditional on the size of the monument when that should be known.
There was strong feeling in Council against this decision, and two weeks later (Meeting of 20 October), a motion was carried, rescinding permission to erect the monument on the intersection.
So it was that when the commission was advertised, the gazetted site was the triangular plantation in Spring Street now known as Gordon Reserve. Carpentaria Place, which separates this area from the rest of the Parliament Reserve, was so named in honour of Burke and Wills.22
This seems to have quietened controversy for a while: as late as December 1863, it was still the intended site and the necessary works to prepare it were being carried out.23 But by this time, Summers had finished the plaster version of his work, and began transporting it around the city, testing its suitability to various sites. The Argus (26 December, 1863) reported that ‘the plaster group, placed on a temporary pedestal of the size and form of that proposed by the artist, was erected (in Spring Street) a few days ago. It was found, however, that from no point of view could the really fine monument be seen to advantage. Since then, other sites have been tried, and the monument stands for the moment in Collins Street at the intersection of Russell Street. As the ground is high at this point, the slope of the street rising sharply from the intersection of Swanston Street, the effect is very fine from all four points of view’
This seems to have been a popular choice. The Argus, which had editorialized against the site, now editorialized in its favour.24 Letters for and against were traded in the correspondence columns.25 Other sites which had been canvassed by various parties during this period included the grounds of the Royal Society, the Public Library forecourt, the Carlton, Fitzroy and Botanical Gardens, and even Batman's
Hill, the site of the present day Spencer Street rail terminals, in the hope that this would save the hill, a popular place of recreation, from being levelled.26
The Board were now determined on the Collins-Russell intersection, and reapplied to the City Council. Their request was debated at the meeting of 11 January, 1864, where two petitions from residents in the immediate area of the site were presented. That in favour of the monument numbered 128 signatures; that against, ‘about eight’. A motion was passed, granting the site on condition that the Council be absolved of all liability for accidents caused by the monument.27
The issue seems to have stalled at this point for over a year. In February 1865, Professor Wilson was again writing to the council, requesting formal permission to erect the monument, to which the Council replied that their condition of non-liability had not yet been complied with.28 To do so would have required the passing of an Act of Parliament, and as the 21 April unveiling date approached, the situation became urgent. In an attempt to talk the Council around, the Chief Secretary, James McCulloch, invited the Mayor, George Wragge, and the Town Clerk, E. G. Fitzgibbon, to a meeting with himself and Professor Wilson.29 The Mayor stood fast, and at the subsequent Council meeting, a motion to withdraw the non-liability condition was defeated by his dissenting vote. A week later, however, at the meeting of 27 February, the same motion was passed by one vote, the Council agreeing to accept liability.30 By 14 March, the Argus was able to report that construction on the site had begun.

Other Activities

The Monument was not a full-time occupation for Summers. He continued to execute portrait commissions, and in June 1863, he completed the full-size plaster version of a monument to Shakespeare, which he offered to cast in bronze for the sum of £1,000, in time for the anniversary of the poet's death, 23 April the following year. Despite the best efforts of the fundraisers, however, the money could not be found and it was the plaster version itself which was unveiled in the Public Library forecourt on that date.31 Another major commission at this time was a figure group — ‘Plenty, showering down her blessings on Australia, represented by a male and female figure and a child’ — to adorn the Sydney offices of the Mutual Provident Association. In November 1863 the work was being cast, and in February 1864 Summers was in Sydney, supervising its installation.32 Nor were social duties overlooked: the sculptor found time to attend the Lord Mayor's Return Fancy Dress Ball in September 1863 as Michaelangelo, accompanied by his wife as ‘a Spanish lady of the eighteenth century’.33
Summers was also occupied in organizing the Fine Arts Exhibitions held annually in his studio since 1861. February 1864 saw the fourth and last of these: in December 1864 the first exhibition in the new Public Library Picture Gallery took place, and Summers was invited to be a judge.34 In the same month, the sensationally popular painting ‘Derby Day’ by the English painter W. P. Frith was exhibited in Summers’ studio.35
And then there was the Art Union. Art Unions were a form of lottery intended to encourage interest in the Fine Arts: subscription money was pooled to buy works of art which were then awarded, by lot, to members of the Union. The Melbourne Art Union met at Summers’ studio, and included most of the Board of Design on its committee. It was not a successful venture: delivering its second annual report in February 1863, Professor Wilson declared that the Union had suffered from a lack of public interest and a scarcity of good art, as well as the unscrupulous competition of mere picture-raffles calling themselves art unions. The Union's own offer of £100 for a picture on some subject connected with the Burke and Wills expedition had failed to attract any pictures worth judging.36 In April the following year, the Union held its third and final meeting: nine months had passed without any new subscriptions being obtained, and it was ‘unanimously resolved to bring the society to a conclusion’, with a special vote of thanks to Charles Summers ‘for the use of his room and the assistance he had generally rendered to the objects of the Art-Union’.37
Summers’ work on the Monument was ably exploited by the Art Union. In his 1863 report, Professor Wilson noted that a photograph of the maquette had been presented to each subscriber (117 in all); later, at the same meeting, six statuettes ‘from the same design’ were distributed as prizes. It is tantalizing to speculate on the subsequent fate of these statuettes: the possible existence of six ‘clones’ does nothing to simplify the question of identifying the competition maquette.

The Monument Installed and Unveiled

By September 1864, Summers was ready to cast the bronze figures of Burke and Wills. Late in the afternoon of Friday 16, between thirty and forty ladies and gentlemen, including the Governor Sir Charles Darling, gathered in Summers’ studio to witness the event. The Argus reported that ‘about two and a half tons of metal were melted in a reverberatory furnace, and it took some six hours to bring the mass into

Figure 3:
Artist's impression of the proposed monument.
Melbourne Leader, 20 December 1862.

a proper state for running. The casting was performed without accident, and apparently in a very successful manner.’38
The figures were cast separately and that of Burke was cast in two sections. Summers, boldened by his success, now resolved to recast the Burke in one piece. On 1 February, 1865, he did so, in the presence of some one hundred and thirty invited guests.39
In form, the plinth consisted of a tall, narrow block atop a wide, squat block: the lower block was to accommodate four bronze bas-reliefs, one on each face, and the ledge formed by its junction with the upper block was to be covered by an ornamental floral moulding, also of bronze. The reliefs would not be ready in time for the unveiling, but Summers was determined to have the moulding in place by 21 April. In his anxiety to complete it, however, he ‘hurried on the casting too precipitately, and it proved a failure’.40
By 25 March, the pedestal had been constructed in Collins Street. On the evening of Wednesday 29, the bronze group was removed from Summers’ studio, and on the following day was raised onto the pedestal.41
Three weeks later, on 21 April, the fourth anniversary of Burke, Wills and King's return to Cooper's Creek, the Monument was unveiled shortly after four in the afternoon, to the sound of artillery, trumpets and loud applause. A temporary platform around the base of the Monument accommodated Sir Charles Darling and his party, the members of the Board of Design, the expedition's survivor John King, and Charles Summers. A crowd of some thousands was addressed by the Governor and by Professor Wilson, who congratulated Summers on his skill and dedication: Wilson pointed out that the artist ‘will only obtain, for his three years’ labour less wages than would be received by one of his own labourers’. Three cheers for the sculptor were called for and given at the end of the proceedings.42

An Anonymous Critic

The Monument, as any good monument should, had at least one enemy. On 22 April, the Argus published a long and vitriolic letter from one signing himself ‘Q’, who complained that, as a resident of the upper part of Collins Street, he was constantly forced to regard the rear of the sculptural edifice. He also questioned the artistic qualifications of the Board of Design, and protested that the bronze figures bore no resemblance to Burke or Wills.
His letter was answered by one (Argus, 24 April) which suggested that the figures on the monument should have had four faces, one for each principal direction, so that none need have complained about living ‘behind’ it. This was signed ‘R.H.H.’ and presumably came from Richard Henry (or Hengist) Horne, an English poet and adventurer who sojourned in Victoria from 1852 to 1869, pursuing twin careers in letters and public administration. His portrait medallion, by Summers, is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
‘Q’ replied at length (Argus, 27 April) without saying anything new, and received a similar rejoinder from ‘R.H.H.’43 but it is worth pausing to consider at least one of his complaints, because it touches on a genuine dilemma in Victorian aesthetics. ‘Q’ complains of ‘Mr. Summers’ idealisms’: the stern, muscular figures on the monument do not resemble Burke or Wills, nor do their garments resemble anything worn by the authentic bushman. The Victorian artpublic was often caught between its love of a good likeness and its dread of vulgar realism: furthermore, the dominant sculptural style was neo-classical, which increasingly posed problems for the representation of contemporary individuals. Costume, in particular, was a constant source of difficulty: the Illustrated Melbourne Post noted approvingly of Summers’ model that the ‘unpicturesqueness of ordinary conventional costume does not intrude itself to embarrass the designer and mar the effect of his work’.44
As a committed neo-classicist, Summers would have argued that if he were to commemorate a human subject in unchanging stone or bronze, he must present that subject in an ideal, unchanging aspect, as free from blemishes and weakness of the body as from the exigencies of fashion. His portrait busts are always clothed in an indeterminate swirl of drapery; in fact, his pupil and biographer Margaret Thomas records that, late in life, he refused a remunerative commission for three busts ‘because it was made a sine qua non that the details of modern dress should be copied’.45
And so his Burke and Wills wear garments that could have been found in Europe in any century from the sixteenth onward, though it is worth noting that Burke has been given a decidedly unclassical accessory — a telescope — to hold.46

Finishing Touches

It was late in December 1865, before Summers was ready to attach the floral moulding to the base of the monument. As soon as he had done so, however, he found it necessary to remove it ‘for the purpose of making some alterations in it’.47 It was finally set in place in late January 1866. According to the Argus, the wreath is composed of passion flowers and
nardoo plant, the symbolism of which was clear to any who knew the story of the explorers’ last days.48
By 31 August the first relief, depicting the outset of the expedition, was in place. The second, showing the return to Cooper's Creek, was installed about a week later, and on the following day the third panel, the discovery of King by Howitt's expedition, was added.49
The fourth panel, showing the incident described by King, of the aborigines weeping over the dead body of Burke, proved extremely troublesome. Each of the other reliefs had been cast successfully on the first trial, but Summers was required to cast this one seven times before obtaining a satisfactory result.50 On 10 September, 1866, it was fixed to the monument, and the Argus was able to ‘cordially congratulate Mr. Summers on having achieved such a marked success’.51
Compared to the principal figure group, the reliefs are vividly circumstantial: the ‘unpicturesqueness of ordinary conventional costume’ flourishes, and Burke is allowed to appear wearing his outlandish (and serviceable) cabbage-tree hat. The Return to Cooper's Creek is remarkable for its attempt to suggest effects of wind and light: while a crescent moon hangs in the sky, Burke reads the message from the just-opened cache, by the light of a candle held by Wills (?). King (?), his hair swept by the wind, holds up a fold of cloth to protect the flickering flame.
It is not known whether the City Council ever had cause to regret their assumption of liability for accidents caused by the Monument: mishaps were not uncommon in this part of Collins Street.52 The Monument also attracted its share of vandalism: the bas-reliefs were being maltreated almost as soon as they were in place, and one Argus correspondent watched in horror as a drunken man struck his matches on the Return to Cooper's Creek.53

After the Monument

In March 1867, Summers announced his intention to return to England, giving as his reason the ‘want of commissions’ to be had in Melbourne.54 On Saturday 4 May, he set sail on the ‘True Briton’. From England, he made the journey to Rome postponed some fifteen years before, and established a successful studio there He died in Paris in 1878, after an operation for goitre.
The three phases of his career — London, Melbourne, Rome — had all been rewarding, but it is pleasant to think, as Margaret Thomas declared, that ‘the happiest portion of Mr. Summers’ life was that occupied in executing the Burke and Wills Monument in Melbourne — a period of about two years’.55

Epilogue — The Wandering Monument

Burke and Wills remained in their hard-won position in Collins Street until early in 1886, when the laying of cable-tram tracks necessitated the removal of the Monument. After long delays, caused by the City Council's reluctance to pay what it considered an exorbitant sum to the contractor, the Monument was re-erected on a small island at the angle of Spring and Nicholson Streets, near the Princess Theatre.56 Here it remained for nearly a century, until the development of Melbourne's public transport system again forced it to move on. Excavations for the Underground Rail Loop made it necessary to remove the Monument to the Victoria Street edge of the Carlton Gardens on 15 December, 1973. Summers’ masterwork was incorporated into plans for the new Melbourne City Square and was moved to this, its present location, on 8 December, 1979, where it was reassembled in a modified form: two bas reliefs were doubled up on the right-hand side of the pedestal, and the floral moulding, which had given Summers so much trouble, was omitted.57 At the time of writing, the City Square is being replanned, and it remains to be seen what consequences this will have for the Monument.
Some Melburnians take an ironic enjoyment in the fact that this monument to a pair of ill-fated desert explorers is now placed over an abundant waterfall. This is too good a joke to spoil, but the point should be made that Burke and Wills spent their last weeks on the banks of a freshwater (even if unchlorinated) creek, and died of starvation: water, at the end of their lives, was the only thing they did not lack.
I would like to thank Christine Downer, of the La Trobe Library, for reading and commenting on an early draft of this article, and for directing my attention to important Summers documents in the Public Records Office. I would also like to thank Pat Sabine, Kathy Backwell and Terence Bogue for providing me with visual material. Much of the research for this article was done while I was employed by the Melbourne City Council's Department of Health and Community Services.

Figure 4:
The Burke and Wills Monument in its original location
at the intersection of Collins and Russell Streets, Melbourne.
La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria


  • The best general account of the Burke and Wills expedition is still Alan Moorhead's Cooper's Creek, (London 1963).

For Charles Summers, see:
  • The Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 6. (Melbourne University Press 1976).

  • Scarlett, K. Australian Sculptors, (Melbourne 1980).

  • Evans, J. Charles Summers 1825–1878, exhibition catalogue, (Woodspring Museum, Weston-super-Mare 1978).

  • Thomas. M. A Hero of the Workshop, (London, [1879]).

  • Downer, C. ‘Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines’ in Art and Australia, Vol. 25, No. 2, p.206. ‘Heroic Failure’ in Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788–1988 exhibition catalogue, (Icca/The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1988).

The Melbourne Argus took a keen interest in Summers’ activities: no other artists, with the possible exception of Chevalier and Von Guerard, appeared so frequently in its columns at this time.
Information about proceedings of the Melbourne City Council has principally been derived from the bound volumes of Council minutes held at the Melbourne Town Hall.
Gerard Hayes


Victorian Hansard, Vol. 8, p.258.


Ms. letter from Charles Summers, dated 28 December 1861, in the Chief Secretary's Records, Series 1189/757, Public Record Office of Victoria. This letter is not the original, but a copy written by Summers to accompany another letter, dated 29 July 1862. Summers was remarkably quick in obtaining instructions from the ‘late’ administration, i.e. the Heales ministry, because it ended on 11 November 1861, nine days after the first news of the catastrophe.


See Christine Downer's article ‘Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines’ in Art and Australia, Vol. 25, No. 2, p.206.


Argus, 11 Dec., 1862.


Victorian Hansard, Vol. 8, pp.404, 408.


Argus, 8 Feb., 1862.


Ibid., 25 Mar., 1862.


Ibid., 19 Aug., 20 Sept., 1862.


Ms. letter dated 29 July, 1862. See note 2.


Victorian Hansard, Vol. 8, p.1157.


See Wilson's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.


Selby, Isaac The Old Pioneers’ Memorial History of Melbourne, (Melbourne, 1924), p.256.


According to different sources, there are slight variations in the personnel of the Board of Design. The listing here follows that given in the Board's final report, preserved in the Chief Secretary's Records, Series 1189/757, P.R.O. Fisher appears in the Art Union's annual reports (see notes 33, 34). Griffith, Gilbee, Smith, Archer and Wardell are all in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.


Argus, 5 Dec, 1862.


Ibid., 11 Dec., 1862; 5 Jan., 1863.


Illustrated Melbourne Post, 3 Jan., 1863.


Downer, C. ‘Heroic Failure’ in Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788–1988, exhibition catalogue, (Icca/The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1988), p.86.


Leader, 20 Dec., 1862, p.1.
In the Warrnambool maquette, the base on which the explorers stand is comparatively wide, and is composed of two very distinct levels; in the Royal Society maquette, as in the monument, the base is smaller in area, shallower and less regularly terraced. In the Warrnambool maquette. Wills’ forearms point inwards, nearly crossing: his left hand is poised in the space between his knees, his right hand is buried in his lap. In the Royal Society maquette, Wills’ forearms are closer to parallel: his right hand rests on the book on his right thigh, his left hand rests along his left thigh. In these two points of salient difference between the maquettes, it will be seen that the group shown in the Leader illustration resembles the Warrnambool maquette, rather than that of the Royal Society. I am obliged to Mr. Tim Bonyhady for bringing this picture to my attention.


Herald, 8 Dec, 1862.


Argus, 13 Dec, 1862; 5 Jan., 1863.


Illustrated Melbourne Post, 3 Jan., 1863.


Swanson, R. Melbourne's Historic Parks and Gardens, (Melbourne City Council, 1984), p.40.


Argus, 5 Dec, 1863.


Ibid., 8 Oct., 1862; 28 Dec., 1863.


Ibid., 28, 29, 30 Dec., 1863; 12 Jan., 1864.


Selby, op.cit., p.422; Argus, 12 Jan., 1864 (p.6, Col.4). See also ‘The Proposed Burke and Wills Monument: An Address’, delivered to the Royal Society of Victoria in November 1862 by John Millar, and the Argus’ caustic leader in response: 5 Dec., 1862.


Argus, 12 Jan., 1864.


Melbourne City Council Minutes, 9 Feb., 1865.


Ibid., 20 Feb., 1865, See also Argus, 21 Feb., 1865.


Argus, 28 Feb., 1865.


Ibid., 24 June, 6 July, 1863; 21, 23 Apr., 1864.


Ibid., 5 Nov., 1863; 22 Feb., 1864.


Ibid., 30 Sept., 1863, p5.


Ibid., 22, 26 Feb., 2 Mar., 1864; 21 (Supplement), 27, 29 Dec., 1864.


Ibid., 21 Dec., 1864.


Ibid., 18, 19 Feb., 1863.


Ibid., 14, 15, 16 (leader) Mar., 22 Apr., 1864.


Ibid., 17 Sept., 1864. See also the Melbourne Age for this date.


Argus, 2, 3 Feb., 1864. Age, 2 Feb., 1864.


Argus, 18 Apr., 1865.


Ibid., 25 (supplement), 31 Mar., 1865.


Ibid., 22 Apr., 1865.


Ibid., 27 Apr., 8 May, 1865.


Illustrated Melbourne Post, 3 Jan., 1863.


Thomas, M. A Hero of the Workshop, (London, n.d.,) p.29.


I would like to suggest, on purely circumstantial evidence, a possible alter ego for ‘Q’: namely, David Syme, the journalist and proprietor of the Melbourne Age. The testy, querulous tone of Q's correspondence is strongly reminiscent of Syme's literary style; Syme lived in the upper part of Collins Street, behind the Monument, in 1863 (but not in 1862 or 1864, apparently); Q was undoubtedly the author of an earlier letter on the Monument (Argus, 12 January 1864) signed ‘Quill’ — an apt pseudonym for one of Syme's profession.


Argus, 3 Jan., 1866.


Ibid., 26 Jan., 1866.


Ibid., 31 Aug., 6, 7 Sept., 1866.


Ibid., 6 June, 10 July, 1866.


Ibid., 11 Sept., 1866.


Ibid., 15 Sept., 1866.


Ibid., 3 Sept., 1866; 5 Apr., 1867.


Ibid., 6 Mar., 1867. See also 1 May, 1867.


Thomas, M. op.cit., p.27.


Argus, 8 Feb., 16 Mar., 1886.


Herald, 15 Dec., 1973, (p.2); 8 Dec., 1979 (Final Edition, p.11).