The Story of the Springthorpe Memorial
“The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.”
From Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “The Blessed Damozel”
As the major researcher on the Springthorpe Memorial, author of a number of articles and reports on it, and the last person to be able to interview surviving members of the family, I am glad to see that this unique structure still interests people. As no name can be seen anywhere on it, it tends to have an air of mystery. Consequently, myth and legend have grown up like the surrounding trees around what is possibly the most richly expressive combination of art and architecture in the history of Australian memorial construction.
Annie Springthorpe (nee Inglis), wife of renowned Melbourne doctor and philanthropist Dr John Springthorpe, died 23 January, 1897, as a result of child-birth complications but was buried in her family grave on the 26th. She was not interred in the Memorial crypt until 1899. They had been married on her twentieth birthday, 26 January, 1887.
Dr. Springthorpe was devastated by the death of his soul-mate but at the same time, he was aware of the universality of death and grief. So, he decided to build a memorial that would not just be for Annie alone but which would seek to express the hope in loss for all mankind. Thus, he would inscribe no name on it. The beauty of love, he felt, is immortal and in being so overcomes mortality. All the structure’s major features have symbolic value. Underneath each of the four gables, or tympanie, is a line ending in the word “evermore”. If you walked around the temple, looking up, you would move from “Peace Evermore” to “Life Evermore”, then to “Light Evermore” which faces the west and finally to a resolution in the affirming “Love Evermore.” Springthorpe wanted the visitor to read each of the sides of the temple as a panel, so that beginning on the eastern side and proceeding clockwise you read a story of Loss, Memory, Separation and finally Reunion.
The temple was Springthorpe’s concept and he worked with architect Desbrowe Annear on the working drawings for the structure and with artist John Longstaffe on drawings for the sculpture group which they had ready by April 1898. The marble was carved by well-known ex-pat sculptor Edgar Bertram Mackennal in London.
Supporting the 100 tons of Harcourt granite are twelve highly polished granite columns so deeply green in colour that they appear black, shot through with opalescent flecks of mica. Quarried in Labrador, the stone was shipped to Aberdeen in Scotland where it was polished into tapering pillars ten feet high and two feet in diameter. The floor is covered in mosaic tiles manufactured especially by the Mitcham Tile Company to Springthorpe’s design. He spent many hours agonising over the wording for the floor inscriptions, the pediments, and the gate. They are not only reflections of his love and sadness, but are also evident of his wide reading and scholarship and include words from the Greek classics, the Bible, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Dante, Browning, Riley, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
All the bronze work was cast by the James Marriott foundry, who also cast the ornamental street-lamps that illuminate the Spring Street stair entrance to the Parliament House of Victoria. The dome was formed in Melbourne from Tiffany glass imported from the U.S.
To mark the occasion of the completion of the structure, a small ceremony was held on the site on 23 January, 1901. Mackennal, who with his wife had accompanied his statues out from England aboard ship and had supervised their siting, chiselled his name on the base. Springthorpe signed one of the floor tiles and Ballantine, the construction manager, and Annear each signed the upper surface of one of the tympana. Mackennal had carved his symbolic figures from blocks of pure white Carrarra marble, the same stone used by Michealangelo. The figure of Grief huddles at the foot of the bier with her stringless harp, rendered dumb with sorrow, shrouded by her cloak. Annie lies on a bier of rose-pink marble with lilies in her hand and above her a smiling angel places a wreath upon her head, symbolising her triumph over death in immortal life.
These were the first Mackennal marbles to reach Australia, and they remain the largest and best (and most neglected) example of his work in this country today. Mackennal himself thought of them as his most important work to that time and they were so highly regarded that the Melbourne Punch of 21 February, 1901, acclaimed the work as the “finest piece of memorial statuary in the Southern hemisphere.”
The need for protection of the pure white marble from both sightseers, with whom the Memorial became hugely popular, and the elements soon necessitated the construction of a massive teak-framed glass case over it. This effectively protected the statues for many years, but it had not been built with adequate ventilation. Heavy condensation began to affect visibility and the integrity of the porous marble itself. The case was eventually removed, but the result has unfortunately been heavy staining and vandalism.
A landscaped triangular rose garden containing a reflecting pool originally surrounded the Memorial. The extensive rose-gardens, started from cuttings sent to Dr. Springthorpe by family friends, were landscaped by Guilfoyle, the head curator of the Botanical Gardens. The reflecting pool, the last feature to be installed, was constructed of white marble and sky-blue tiles with a fountain and was completed to mark the tenth anniversary of Annie’s death on 23 January, 1907. Unfortunately, all this has now been resumed by the cemetery.
As I explained to Peter Luck at the time of his documentary series, rumours about the Memorial were probably started because work was begun while the after-shocks of the 1890’s depression were still being felt in Melbourne and there was probably a lot of resentment about one person spending that much money on something they weren’t even going to live in. A few years earlier, Springthorpe’s three-storey house and surgery, Camelot, in Collins street had cost 1,000 pounds to build. After ten years work, his Memorial had cost 10,000 pounds! At one time he’d been so short of funds that he had to take out a second mortgage on his home and the bank tried to talk him into a third. It took him years to clear the debt, so he certainly never used anyone else’s money.
Oh, and yes this is the same Dr Springthorpe after whom the suburb has been named, because of his very significant work with war trauma victims at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. The gates to his large suburban home, Joyous Guarde, which had been the gates to the old Melbourne Hospital on the Queen Vic site, currently stand at the entrance to a Murrumbeena park and clarifies why streets around there are named after Arthurian characters.
George Nipper, Esq.
Its not the destination; its the journey.