On a beautiful 24-degree summer afternoon, where more perversely pleasant to visit than a cemetery? So off we went to Boroondara Cemetery in High Street Kew, primarily to see the Springthorpe Memorial which I’d seen many times in photographs but never actually visited.
Boroondara Cemetery was established in 1858 as a garden cemetery and, with imagination, you can just sense the Victorian conceptions of death and mourning that underpinned its design. The original plan, since abandoned, was for curved paths and winding roads, but it nevertheless maintains its rather forbidding red brick perimeter wall, caretaker’s lodge with slate roof and a clocktower, and rotunda. Its most famous monument is the Springthorpe Memorial, completed in 1907 after ten years’ construction and described in 1933 in The Age as “one of the most beautiful and most costly in the commonwealth”.
It was erected by Dr. John Springthorpe to commemorate his wife Annie, who died in childbirth with her fourth child, Guy, who survived to become a well known Melbourne psychiatrist, following in his father’s footsteps. Dr. John Springthorpe had arrived in Australia as an infant and had a successful career with positions at the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum, the Alfred and the Melbourne Hospitals. He enlisted during World War I with the Australian Army Medical Corps, and on his return to Australia after the war, worked on post-war repatriation and psychiatric care (hence his commemoration in the name of ‘Springthorpe’ housing estate on the site of the old Mont Park/Bundoora Repatriation hospital). The breadth of his professional involvements is wide: training and registration of dentists, nurses, masseurs, ambulance work, maternal and child welfare. He was very much the clubbable man, and a supporter and collector of the nascent Australian artist scene of the turn of the twentieth century. It’s ironic, then, that a man who had such a rich life should be best known for a memorial that he created to commemorate death.
As a thirty-one year old, he had married the 20-year- old Annie Inglis on Australia Day 1887 and they moved into a house at 83 Collins Street east- the fashionable, doctors’ end of town. She was a first cousin to the a Beckett family, and hence the Boyd family who are so interwoven into Melbourne cultural life. Ten years later she died, giving birth to her fourth child. Disconsolate with grief, Dr Springthorpe sent his children away to live with relatives, and poured his sorrow into his diaries, transforming his house into a shrine to Annie with photographs and paintings to commemorate their married life, and leaving the house just as it was- even to the blood stain where his wife hemorrhaged to death. In the days immediately following her death, he turned to the artistic circle of Melbourne and commissioned the sculptor Bertram Mackennel to design
a piece of sculpture, all in white marble, a sarcophagus, richly traced, with certain inscriptions on the sides; on the top, a sculptured figure, as much like Annie as she lay in the drawing room as possible
And here it is
The memorial took nearly ten years to complete. The roof, made of red glass that bathes the marble in a rosy glow, was designed by Harold Desbrowe Annear.
The memorial was originally surrounded by gardens designed by William Guilfoyle, the designer of the Botanic Gardens. Later work on the garden saw the installation of two works by Charles Web Gilbert- my husband’s grandfather (and to be honest, our main reason for seeking out the Springthorpe Memorial in the first place). One of these was of a brolga defending her chicks against a snake rearing up to strike, and the other of a monk. Neither of these sculptures have survived, and it is unsure whether they were ever positioned where they were intended. However, this picture from 1929 seems to show some sort of bird with outstretched wings, and interestingly, the marble figures seem to be enclosed in a glass case. The gardens were subsumed into the rest of the cemetery when, after Springthorpe’s death, it was found that the transactions for the land had not been completed.
The whole memorial is heavily freighted with symbolic references, including quotations and adaptations from the Bible, the Greek classics, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Dante, Browning, Riley, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There’s something just a little bit creepy about the idealization of his wife- especially given that she is not named anywhere on the memorial:
- My own true love
- Pattern daughter perfect mother and ideal wife
- Born on the 26th day of January 1867
- Married on the 26th day of January 1887
- Buried on the 26th day of January 1897
- It is a memorial deeply engraved by text:
- I found myself thinking of the pre-Raphaelites and their heavy emphasis on beauty and death. To our eyes today, there’s something rather unhealthy about it all. Maybe people even then were discomfited by such fervent obsession as well: apparently Mackennell himself warned Springthorpe that the etching of deeply symbolic and overwrought text on every possible surface might be over the top. The Bulletin concurred:
Turning for a last look, the tremendous monument loads the emotions, insistent, almost blatant, one thinks dully of the dead woman, ten feet below, on whose brow it must press so heavily. Only its artistic beauty, only Mackennal’s consummate genius, could have saved it from descending to the level of a gorgeous advertisement.
- The monument cost a huge amount, although it is uncertain what the final cost amounted to with figures ranging from £4,500 to £8,000-£10,000 bandied about: in today’s currency, somewhere between $700,000 and $1.3M.
- There’s a fascinating article by Pat Jalland exploring the Springthorpe Memorial as a masculine expression of grief. She wrote Australian Ways of Death. A Social and Cultural History 1840-1918 and you can access her article from The Age here. And Anne Sanders from the National Portrait Gallery delivered a wonderful presentation on Springthorpe himself and the video and transcript are well worth a look.