The sculptor Tom Bass (1916-2010) was born in Lithgow. Richard Neville (1941-2016) spent much of his later life in the Blue Mountains village of Blackheath. Both men were associated with a work of art regarded as one of Sydney’s most humorous……and most controversial.
Do you know the one I mean? It was installed at 55 Hunter Street, by the P. & O. building, in 1963. The building had just been officially opened by the conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. It’s hard to believe now, but back then he was the only PM Baby Boomers like myself had ever known.
Now the Bass sculpture (a wave-like water fountain) was designed to be an edgy piece of modern art as Australia was entering the ‘swinging sixties’. However, there was no disguising the fact that it bore a striking resemblance to a urinal; a Parisian pissoir , one might say.
A satirical magazine called OZ had been founded the same year by Richard Neville. It was edited by Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp. These young university students were unable to resist taking a cheeky photo of themselves at the sculpture.
The cover of the sixth edition and the accompanying text were really very witty;
Note Richard Neville’s signature.
Oz Magazine and its editors ended up being charged with obscenity. Naturally it was great publicity for them. This cartoon featuring Richard Neville appeared in Tharunka;
The young men pleaded guilty and were fined £20 each. The fact that they came from highly respectable families was taken into account. In fact, Richard Neville’s father was so shocked and upset by the whole affair that he suffered a serious heart attack.
Tom Bass was not at all upset by the liberties taken with his creation. He supported Neville and Co., and said he thought their treatment of the sculpture was ‘fair enough’.
Did the editorial team learn their lesson? Well, no. The following year there was another obscenity charge, as Oz continued to take on all manner of taboo subjects. It did not help their cause that they had pleaded guilty the year before. This time the case went to trial and Neville and Sharp received gaol sentences, albeit overturned on appeal.
Two years later the pair left for London, where Oz magazine continued. Contributors included fellow expats Germaine Greer and cartoonist Michael Leunig. In 1971 there would be yet another obscenity charge, followed by a famous court case at The Old Bailey. John Mortimer (author of Rumpole of the Bailey) was barrister for the defendants, assisted by ex-pat Aussie Geoffrey Robinson. A guilty verdict on two charges was once more overturned on appeal.
DOWN THE GURGLER
Horror of horrors, the iconic wall fountain had to be removed recently , as part of the Sydney Metro project. The Hunter Street site will become the entrance to one of the new stations.
Tom Bass created a piece of art that became part of our social history, so let’s hope it finds a new home in the city. If it doesn’t I may have to organize a petition to have it relocated in the Blue Mountains.
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