State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 73 Autumn 2004


Kenneth W. Park
‘Thrusting Forward’: A Note on the Armorial Bearings

As You stand at the foot of the grand staircase that gently rises to the splendid temple-like portico entrance of the State Library of Victoria, it is hard not to be impressed by the simple beauty and architectural balance of Joseph Reed's elegant design.1 Of course, it is impossible to miss the centrally placed and impressively detailed robed statue of Sir Redmond Barry as you start your climb up the stairs to ‘massage your mind’ in Victoria's great library. He ‘stands proudly before one of Victoria’s most loved public institutions'.2 There is really no need to read the plinth inscription as the statue atop says it all. Barry is portrayed as proud and poised, and maybe to some observers portly and even a little pompous. Blessed with a tantalising cocktail of energy, passion and vision, Barry was committed and confident as he endeavoured to play a significant role in the shaping of colonial Melbourne.
Sir Redmond Barry is remembered for many actions, but very notably as Chancellor of the University of Melbourne and ‘Chief Trustee’ of the Library. He played an instrumental role in the foundation and early evolution of these two great institutions of culture and education. Generations of library users, in passing Barry's stature, continue in an odd way to pay a sort of homage to one of Victorias great and at times controversial colonial achievers. However, most users would not realise, as they pass through the portico of fluted columns to enter the Library, that high above their heads in the wall is a finely carved coat of arms. They are the personal arms of none other than Sir Redmond Barry, along with accompanying motto ‘Boutez en Avant’ (Thrust forward).3
Barry lived up to the family motto and ‘thrust forward’, confident that his contribution to the building of the Library was sufficient justification for placement of his arms on a public institution funded with public monies. The story of the coat of arms provides an interesting insight into Barry and an amusing aside in the story of the State Library of Victoria.
Edmund La Touche Armstrong, the distinguished former Chief Librarian, in The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria notes at the beginning of the entry for the year 1871, that ‘the portico was finished in 1870’.4 It is a simple, but significant milestone worthy of recording. Melbourne's own Public Library now looked every bit like one of the world's great collecting institutions. Complete with its Corinthian columned portico, the facade of the Public Library would have reminded the well-travelled of the British Museum in London.
The Library, magnificently adorned with its new portico, was now a building that the citizens of colonial Melbourne could take great pride in. Barry, who had served as President from the beginning, had been unanimously elected President of the recently expanded group of Trustees.5 Ann Galbally in her biography on Barry writes,
With his feeling for history Barry judged the moment and honour worth commemorating. He would have had in mind as a point of reference the example of Sir Charles Nicholson and splendid pageantry in stone of Sydney University, a public building on whose fabric so many of those involved had been invited to include their armorial bearings. Harry now decided that those who had worked so hard for the establishment of the Library complex should be similarly commemorated.6
The arms were there to be admired and appreciated by those who looked up on entering the Library, but not everyone was appreciative.
Melbourne Punch, which turned a satirical eye upon Barry's doings from time to time, thought the topic worth a cartoon and an article:
The “Barry's Arms” Hotel
It has puzzled everyone to know why Sir Redmond Barry would insist in sticking up his coat of arms up in front of the Public Library: but, if rumour may be credited, it is affirmed that his Honour proposes to leave the Bench and take to the Bar, it being reported that he is so delighted with the Amended Publicans Act as to have applied for a licence for the Public Library to be known henceforth by the sign of the “Barry Arms”
As several musical entertainments, without a license, have been given in the long room, he must be cautious in observing the law on this point, as the act is very stringent; but as the house is central, commodious, and has hitherto on temperance principles been well patronised, it is hoped it may prove a success to its spirited landlord under the new regime7
Such mild mockery was easily borne by a public man, but criticism from an official quarter was disturbing, and roused Barry to a strong defence of his action.
In August 1871, during a debate on Supply in the Legislative Assembly, the Solicitor-General, W.M.K. Vale, commented on the sum listed for ‘repairs, additions, and other public works at the Melbourne Public Library’. He said that ‘he had been told that this building had been defaced by having placed over the pediment the coat of arms of a private individual’. He objected to this on the grounds that public institutions ‘should not be made the instruments of self-glorification’. There had been a change of Ministry two months earlier, with Gavan Duffy taking over the Premiership from James McCulloch, and the new Minister for Public Works, offering no

Redmond Barry's bookplate, bearing his ‘Boutez en avant’ motto [thrust forward]. Pasted on the inside front cover of Vattel's The Law of Nations. By kind permission of Wallace Kirsop.

defence, was able to say that the amount had been agreed to by the previous Government. Vale suggested that no portion of the money be paid until the coat of arms was removed.
The exchange in Parliament had concerned Barry's coat of arms, which was the most prominent, being directly above the front door, but tucked high up and near the ceiling at the back of the portico were other coats of arms. They were the arms of four of the earliest Trustees - Stawell, Palmer, Childers, and McArthur. Palmer had died earlier in the year and Childers was now back in England, but Stawell and McArthur, along with Barry, continued to hold office.
When the Minister for Public Works put to Barry the objections about the armorial bearings, the latter justified his actions in having the shields placed on the building in what Armstrong calls ‘a long and impassioned letter’.8 With wonderful eloquence he presented a crafted, and considered legal argument drawing on the full weight of precedent, invoking the practices in ancient Greece and Rome of having great generals and others who have rendered great public service to the community place their names on public buildings in recognition of their services. Indeed, Barry, in a surprised and hurt tone, said that
he was at a loss to know the grounds of objection taken to the fact that the armorial bearings of the six original Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library had been placed under the ceiling of the portico. The practice of allowing persons to whom had been confided the honour of erecting public buildings to connect their names with them had been sanctioned from a remote antiquity in every part of the civilised world. In Rome the officer charged with the conduct of public works was not only permitted to enjoy the distinction of placing his emblem on a conspicuous part of a building which he had erected, but, in order to perpetuate the recollection of his services in what has proved a still more durable shape, the sum voted by the senate was paid to him in the bullion at the Treasury, and he was allowed to coin it at the mint with his effigy on the obverse, and the elevation of the building or the emblem of his family on the reverse of the piece of money… Agrippa, a plebeian of mean extraction, distinguished by his military achievements and his ability in the public service, was allowed to place his name on the frieze of the pediment of the Pantheon, where it has remained unblemished for nineteen centuries…It is not to be imagined that the Trustees with whom I have worked so long, who have received on so many occasions assurances of confidence in their administration of that character which makes responsibility light and sweetness labour, it is not to be conceived, I say, that they were capable of intentionally doing any act calculated to give umbrage to public sentiment… I conclude by saying that I will not readily permit myself to believe that it is the desire of the Ministry to which you have to honour to belong to affront the Trustees who are in this country, or to offer such an indignity to those persons who are absent and unable to address themselves to you, as well as to the memory of a faithful, honourable, and respected public servant now no more. If such be the determination you will adopt such measure as may be thought proper.
The Trustees approved Sir Redmond's letter.9
In the end, as Amstrong records, ‘no further action was taken, and the escutcheons, unobtrusive and unnoticed, remain as interesting little mementos of the first Governors of the Institution.’10 It can be reported that today, the armorial bearings continue to remain safely out of harm's way, and still largely unnoticed. Sir Redmond Barry, along with his loyal fellow-Trustees, had won the day. Comparing his own contribution to that of the great ‘builders’ of the ancient world, Barry had left his mark on one of our most important cultural institutions. People will agree or disagree with his actions in placing family arms on a public building. But none can deny the simple fact that Barry's commitment and contribution to the foundation of the Public Library and Museums and National Gallery of Victoria is an extraordinary achievement.


Phillip Goad, ‘Melbourne Architecture, Balmain, The Watermark Press, 1998, p. 32, provides brief analysis of the architectural development of the State Library of Victoria.


Ibid, p. 32.


Ann Galbally, Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian, 1995, Carlton South, Melbourne University Press, 1995, p. 167


Edmund La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria 1856 - 1906, Melbourne, Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906, p.30.


Leonard B Cox The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, Melbourne, The National Gallery of Victoria, [1970], p. 28 - ‘The exiting Trustees of the Public Library, Barry, Stawell, Palmer, MacArthur and Murphy (replacing Childers) were reappointed’. Several additional Trustees were also appointed.


Galbally, p. 167. Galbally also notes on p. 92. Barry had already ensured that his bearings and those of his members of the University of Melbourne Committee had been set in the walls of the Quadrangle.


Galbally, p. 168.


Cox, p. 29.


Armstrong, p.32.