State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Noble Savages Or Ourselves Writ Strange? Idealism And Empiricism In The Aboriginal Sculpture Of Charles Summers

Countless State Library users pass through the entrance to the Reference and Information Centre. Do they notice the four white marble portrait busts on plinths either side of the double doors? Does anyone give a thought to the Victorian worthies represented there, or to the artist responsible? Do the passers-by in Collins Street ever look at the figures of Burke and Wills towering above them? The answer is probably no, and yet these are all the work of Australia's most important colonial sculptor, Charles Summers.
There is a body of Summers’ work which has been overlooked in the history of Australian art. His depictions of the Aboriginal people in the 1860s are almost unknown and where visible — as in the low-reliefs around the base of the Burke and Wills monument — unnoticed. Two threads are interwoven in these depictions of the Aboriginal people — idealism and realism.
The first evidence of Summers’ interest in this subject is to be found in the first design for the Burke and Wills monument, known only from an engraving after a drawing by Nicholas Chevalier.1 In addition to the figures of Burke and Wills (and an Orientalizing kneeling camel), there were to be four full-sized Aboriginal figures, one at each corner of the cut-away plinth. Two male and one female figures are visible, and the fourth was possibly female as well.
Eighteenth century humanist traditions are evident in Summers’ treatment of his subjects as ‘noble savages’. Summers’ sources were eclectic, based upon his Royal Academy training, familiarity with classical Greek and Roman models re-inforced by the casts on view in the Library's Museum of Art, and his well-known admiration for the Florentine Renaissance sculptors, notably Michelangelo.2 The engraving shows a woman in a possum-skin cloak draped like a tunic, a child visible behind her shoulder in the caritas tradition, a reference to the charitable role played by the Aboriginal people in the Burke and Wills drama. The right-hand male figure is also idealised, recalling representations of a skin-clad John the Baptist. This is an obvious reference to the ability of the Aboriginal people to survive in a wilderness where the white man perished. A barely visible third figure is arrayed as a warrior, his cloak draped toga-like over his shoulder.3 The figures are elongated, a technique used by Summers for elevated sculpture. Apart from the spear, possum-skin cloaks and boomerang, treatment of the figures is idealised. Inclusion of the four figures resulted from Summers’ reading of published accounts of the saga, and his conclusion that the Aboriginal people were far better adapted to their environment than the white men who sought to conquer it.
The first design was never executed. However, there exist a group of four coloured plaster figures which are directly related to it. Two are female figures4, both examples in the caritas tradition. Despite the presence of possum-skin cloaks on both, the treatment is not an accurate rendering of the clothing worn by Aboriginal women and is probably related to the skin-cloak worn by Donatello's Mary Magdalene in the Baptistry at Florence.5
Two male figures, while based on the first design, were executed later in 1866 or 1867, after Summers’ work at Coranderrk.6 While idealistic and heroic in concept, they are accurately observed. They have the spatulate feet and toes of those who walk barefoot, and wear typical headbands and pubic aprons. One figure is closely based upon Donatello's St. George from Or San Michele in Florence and carries a boomerang and incised shield instead of the knight's lance and shield.7 The other is based on Michelangelo's David and thus refers back to classical images of Hercules.8 Yet another male figure, designed for presentation as an Art Union of Victoria prize in 1864, is based very closely upon the Borghese Warrior, a cast of which was to be seen in the Library's Museum of Art9 and also at George Coppins’ Cremorne Gardens in Richmond.10 This figure has some realistic touches — toes flexed over the base of the work for a better grip, squat proportions with heavy shoulder and leg muscles — but the overall concept of is that of Aboriginal man as noble savage.
In 1866, the Library Trustees commissioned Summers to take a series of life casts of sixteen residents of the Coranderrk Mission near Healesville. One of the reasons for this was the request from the Commissioners for skulls of Australian Aborigines for the Paris Exhibition of 1866–67 because of the ‘Continental’ interest in phrenology.11 French interest in phrenology was well-known, and examples of life casts made for the purpose were lithographed for the atlas volume of Dumont D'Urville's account of the voyage of the Astrolabe.12 These included casts of four Tasmanian Aborigines. The para-scientific theory of phrenology held that a person's character could be read from measurements of his or her features and hands, and the traits represented by these measurements could be classified into groups and sub-groups. Melbourne had a practising French phrenologist, M. Sohier, whose treatise, The Register
of the Size of the Phrenological Organs of the Brain shewing Which to Cultivate and Which to Control
, was published in Melbourne in 1861. The Library also catered for readers interested in the subject. The 1865 supplement to the Public Library catalogue listed a number of books on phrenology, as well as a complete set of the Phrenological Journal from 1823 to 1847. Summers’ view of phrenology is not known, but his sixteen casts filled the Commissioners’ specifications for ‘Aboriginal skulls of both sexes, and at different periods of life’.13
The object of commissioning these life casts does not seem to have been solely to placate the Paris Commissioners. It was also to spread knowledge of the Victorian Aboriginal people to scientific institutions in Europe. Copies were also presented to the British Museum in 1869 (these have recently been rediscovered and were displayed in the museum at Weston-super-Mare during its Australian Bicentennial celebrations) and to the Vienna Exhibition in 1872.
That individuals could be portrayed to represent types was well understood in the 19th century. The French sculptor Cordier contributed to this with his exhibitions of busts in Paris and London in 1860 and 1861.14 The individuality of people so sculpted (though Cordier's were portraits from life rather than life-casts) was submerged in the interpretation of their likenesses as typical of men and women of a particular country, tribe and age. From realistic observation, generalisations could be made and an ‘ideal type’ constructed.
Summers’ last Aboriginal subjects were a number of small sculptures of ‘aboriginal natives in various positions — warriors in repose, binding wounds, calling on comrades, throwing the boomerang, carrying off a lubra &c; and lubras with their children.’15 In these later works — and the two male figures already discussed show this — Summers combined an idealistic and heroic view of the Aboriginal people with realistic detail gleaned from his exposure to the residents of Coranderrk as well as from the artefacts displayed in the Library's Museum of Art.16
Summers’ Aboriginal figures are no longer the property of the Library, but their educative function continued into the 20th century as copies of the life-casts were made for distribution to Australian and overseas institutions. Today, some of them are to be seen in the Museum of Victoria's Koorie exhibition in a setting which places them in context for the descendants of those people originally portrayed.
For many years it was thought that these casts were death masks. They are not. True, they present a rather alarming appearance today because of the subjects’ closed eyes. This was necessary because of the techniques involved in taking a cast from life. Briefly, the sitter's face and hair was coated in oil so that the wet plaster did not stick to skin and hair as it dried. Straws were inserted into nostrils so that the sitter could breathe while plaster coated the face. Piece moulds, usually in four parts, were taken when a number of copies of a work were required, and sculptors learnt the technique as part of their training.17 One set of the resulting coloured plaster busts, on circular pedestals with the sex, tribe and age of the sitter inscribed, were kept by the Library.18 One set, made from the moulds which Summers took with him when he left the colony in 186719, was presented to the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes after the Paris Exhibition, where they were displayed in class 8, as Applications of Drawing and Modelling to the Common Arts. That may well indicate Summers’ and Barry's view of the appropriate use of these most realistic of representations of Victorian Aborigines.
Christine Downer is Curator of the La Trobe Library Picture Collection, and is studying the work of Charles Summers at the University of Melbourne.

Charles Summers, ‘Female aged 20 of the Goulburn Tribe’. Coloured plaster, 1866. Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.


Illustrated Australian Mail, 25 December 1861, p. 1.


Summers regularly appeared at Melbourne fancy dress balls as Michelangelo. See Illustrated Melbourne Post, 22 September 1863, p. 11, and Australasian, 22 September 1866, p. 790.


Summers used this figure with its flowing cloak in the final version of the figure of Burke.


Illustrated in my article ‘Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines’, in Art and Australia, vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 206–212.


Men and women's clothing was similar — pubic aprons of strips of skin, fur and sometimes emu feathers. In cold weather they sometimes wore possum-skins as skirts. Children were carried in basketry shawls or skin cloaks, held in position on the mothers’ backs and fastened with a single cross tie.


Australasian, 19 March 1867, p. 306. The evidence is stylistic rather than documentary.


Illustrated in Art and Australia, loc. cit.




Supplemental Catalogue of the Melbourne Public Library for 1865 (Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer, 1865).


Cremorne Gardens, Richmond. Visitor's Guide to the Works of Art by Ancient and Modern Masters, selected from the Studio of Signor Brucciani, of London (Melbourne, n.d.) (but c. 1860), cat. No. 10. Coppin's casts and those in the Library's Museum of Art both came from Brucciani's studio.


Letter from the Secretary of the Commission, quoted in Australasian, 21 July 1866, p. 497. The idea was not well received: ‘The last new idea is to have a collection of skulls — empty or otherwise we presume — of Australian native tribes’.


Voyage au Pole Sud et dans L'Oceanie sur… L'Astrolabe, (Paris: Gide 1842–47), plates 22 & 24. The volume also contains lithographs of the Benjamin Law portraits of Truganini and Woureddy and technical drawings for a Cephalometre by Dumoutier.


Australasian, loc. cit.


L'Oeuvre de M. Cordier: Galerie anthropotogique et ethnographique pour Servir a L'Histoire des Races…. Paris, 1860, reviewed in the Gazette des Arts, 1 August 1860, pp. 190–191; Ethnographical Gallery of Sculpture by Mr. Cordier Illustrating the Most Prominent Types of the Human Race, (London, 1861), reviewed in Art Journal 1861, pp. 62 and 191.


Australasian 19 March 1867, p. 306


Catalogue of the casts of statues, busts and bas-reliefs in the museum of Art at the Melbourne Public Library, (Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer, 1865), pp. 132–134. The Victorian ‘Illustrations of Ethnology’ were ‘1 boomerang; 1 Lee Angle; 2 Shields; 1 Native-made opossum rug; 8 Spears; 3 Spears, jagged; 1 Waddy; 3 Wimmerass;’.


Weekes, Henry, Prize Treatise on the Fine Arts Section of the Great Exhibition of 1851, (London, 1852). The process is described in Margaret Thomas’ How to Understand Sculpture (London, 1911) pp. 13–18 and is closely based upon Weekes’ outline. Summers had worked with Weekes, and sculpted a bust of him in 1872 which is now in the Royal Academy.


Report of the Trustees of the Public Library etc, 1870–71, p. 28.


Herald, 2 May 1867, p. 2. Summers attended the Paris Exhibition after visiting Weston-super-Mare and Taunton, where his return from Australia was widely reported to fellow West Country men.