A ROYAL REPLICA
Early last century John Norton, firebrand editor of Sydney’s Truth newspaper, described Queen Victoria rather unkindly as; ‘..the podgy figured, sulky faced little German woman whose ugly statue at the top of King Street sagaciously keeps one eye on the Mint while with the other she ogles the still uglier statue of Albert the Good..’
After a series of moves around Queen’s Square itself, Victoria no longer ‘ogles’ her prince.
Never mind, Her Majesty still keeps a stern eye on Sydney.
I must thank another Albert (Albert Thomas) for providing the following information about the original, 1960’s move . Pure gold, Albert. One might almost say…’sovereign gold’.
Few people leaving the nearby New South Wales Supreme Court bother to return Victoria’s gaze, and fewer still are aware of the controversy that surrounded the creation of this statue.
In anticipation of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887, the Government of New South Wales commissioned Hungarian born English sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm to produce a full sized bronze figure of the Queen. Boehm had enjoyed royal patronage for some time, though perhaps enjoyed is not quite the right word. No doubt John Norton would have claimed Sir Edgar had the ‘podgy’ monarch in mind when he wrote pragmatically; ‘It is in vain to complain of the paucity of inspiring subjects in our age, of our ugly costume and the dearth of suitable figures for sculpture.’
There were compensations in Boehm’s royal connections. His friendship with Edward the Prince of Wales led to a commission to sculpt the far more alluring figure of ‘Skittles’, one of the Prince’s many lady friends.
A contract between Sir Edgar and the NSW Government was signed on October 22 1885, but when Sydney celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee in June 1887, the statue had not arrived. In its absence, an illuminated outline of Her Majesty was set up on the empty plinth. According to a Sydney Morning Herald reporter this vague ‘phantom of light’ was not well received;
‘…as to the attempted representation of the Queen at Her Majesty’s pedestal, that appeared to the majority of people as a puzzle, the interpretation of which it was difficult to arrive at.’
Fortunately the Colony was about to celebrate its centenary, providing the Government with a second opportunity to unveil Victoria with suitable pomp and ceremony. Even then she only just made it, arriving on the steamer Oraya at the end of December. The statue was lifted into place barely a week before its unveiling by the Governor’s wife, Lady Carrington, on January 24th 1888. As bands played and huge crowds cheered, the embarrassing wait for Her Majesty was almost forgotten. However, a greater controversy was about to emerge.
BETRAYAL BY BOEHM AND BERTIE
Sir Edgar had contravened a strict ‘no copy’ clause in his contract, inserted to guarantee Sydney a unique monument to the Queen. He was alleged to have used the statue’s design as the stake in a card game with the Prince of Wales. When the Prince won, a replica was made for the grounds of Balmoral Castle. Interested visitors will find Victoria by the edge of the royal golf course, separated from her beloved Albert by the tenth green. She may well be happy in this secluded spot, with only the odd misdirected golf ball to threaten her dignity.
Back in Sydney, skateboarders use the steps to her plinth as a ramp. Photographers like to create joke shots by ‘crowning’ her with the AMP tower. The two bronzes are identical; Boehm did not even vary the design of roses, shamrocks and thistles on Her Majesty’s costume.
Two days after The Queen’s Square statue was unveiled, the Sydney Morning Herald published details of the clause in Sir Edgar’s contract prohibiting replicas, adding;
‘This is somewhat curious reading in the light of a cablegram received a short time ago, which announced that on October 8th,1887, a replica of this statue of the Queen had been unveiled by the Prince of Wales at Balmoral.’
That the Balmoral bronze had been unveiled by royalty in the Jubilee year while Sydney’s statue was still tossing on the high seas added insult to injury. Mind you, the Prince of Wales’ tug on a silk cord earned him some badly needed brownie points with the Queen. At Balmoral Castle on October 10th 1887, just two days after the unveiling, her journal included an uncharacteristically warm reference to the son whose behaviour she often despaired of;
‘An early lunch, after which dear Bertie left, having had a most pleasant visit, which I think he enjoyed and said so repeatedly. He had not stayed alone with me [at Balmoral] , excepting for a couple of days in May 1868, since he married! He is so kind and affectionate….’
It is little wonder that ‘Dear Bertie’ enjoyed the visit so much – the commemorative statue he had just unveiled did not cost him a penny. Having won Boehm’s agreement to to reproduce the bronze, its casting was paid for by servants and tenants on the Balmoral estate. One can only assume that the idea for their generous gift came from the Prince.
Despite everything, the New South Wales Government felt compelled to pay Boehm in full (₤3,000) as it was judged that taking any action over the copy would create embarrassment for the Queen. ‘Spin’ was alive and well even in Victorian times and the the conservative Daily Mail helped the Government save face by reporting;
‘It is complimentary to the sculptor and this colony that the Queen preferred this statue to any other model submitted to her, and chose a replica for erection at Balmoral.
SEARCH FOR A SOVEREIGN’S STATUE
When Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building was under renovation in the 1980’s, a search began for a 19th century statue of Victoria to grace the outside of the building. A suggestion that Boehm’s Queen’s Square statue be moved to the QVB was met with an emphatic ‘No’ by the then Premier, Neville Wran. Subsequently, Promotional Director Neil Glasser scoured the world for an alternative. During this period, Queen Elizabeth asked her Private Secretary, the Australian Sir William Heseltine, to check whether a statue of Victoria by Boehm was still standing on the High Street outside Windsor Castle. Reassured that it was, the Queen told Sir William she had read an article in the Times about a man called Glasser wanting to take the statue to Australia. She was probably having a little fun at Heseltine’s expense when she suggested it might be wise to place an armed guard around her great-great-grandmother.
Glasser eventually returned to Sydney with a seated bronze of Victoria he had found discarded in an Irish field. Previously it had been located outside the Irish Parliament. It is fascinating to read the background to this statue, and why Victoria looks the way she does.
However, if the touchy issue of the Boehm replica had been raised, Queen Elizabeth might have felt obliged to right an old wrong by allowing Sir Edgar’s Windsor statue to be taken Down Under.
In early September 2020 the statue was defaced by vandals, a regrettable act referred to by The Daily Telegraph following the death of Neil Glasser on September 10.
HERE IS ANOTHER STORY ABOUT VICTORIA.
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