Australia 1834 – 1894
[Mrs John Baird] 1876
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, kerosene shale; wax carved, polished and waxed kerosene shale Place Published: Sydney
Charles Summers’ portrait bust of William Wilkinson Wardell and John Baird’s near-contemporary depiction of Jane Baird illustrate the professional/amateur divide in 19th-century Australian sculpture. Summers, the son of a stonemason, arrived in Melbourne in 1853, after distinguishing himself as a student at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He became a pivotal figure in local artistic circles and was highly sought after for portraits and commissions. His finest public monument is the bronze statue to the ill-fated explorers, Burke and Wills, made in 1864–65.
In 1867, Summers left Melbourne and set up a large studio workshop in Rome, where he employed a number of trained assistants. His established reputation ensured that he continued to obtain Australian commissions, a superb example being the Italian marble bust of the architect and engineer William Wilkinson Wardell. Wardell was Inspector General of Public Works in colonial Victoria from 1861 to 1878. During a tour of Europe in 1870, Wardell sat for his portrait in Summers’ studio in Rome; the work was completed in 1878 and later shipped to Australia. This portrait bust encapsulates the professional status of both the sculptor and the subject.
In striking contrast to Summers’ polished professional output is Baird’s portrait of his wife, Jane Baird. Little is known of this amateur sculptor’s life except that he worked as a postman in Sydney. In private, he carved a small number of objects in an unusual material for sculpture, kerosene shale, which was mined locally on the North Shore and at Hartley, near Lithgow. Baird did not exhibit his work, so a short article in the Illustrated Sydney News in 1886 entitled ‘Carvings in shale – A Sydney postman’s discovery’ appears to be the only recognition he received during his lifetime. The directness with which Baird has carved this portrait and the stoic gaze of his subject communicate a great deal about his wife’s character.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002