Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mr Archibald and his fountain

We are conserving the Archibald Fountain in Sydney’s Hyde Park North at present. It’s quite a privilege as it is widely regarded as the finest fountain in Australia. It’s full title is the J. F. Archibald Memorial Fountain, and it was unveiled on 14th March 1932 by Sydney’s Lord Mayor Samuel Walder, just five days before the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Mr J.F. Archibald, the founding editor of the Bulletin, after whom the Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald portrait prize is also named, bequeathed the funds necessary to build the fountain, with one specific request – the fountain had to be designed by a French artist. Archibald had a great love of French culture, and wanted the fountain to commemorate the association of Australia and France during World War One.

The French artist François-Léon Sicard was chosen to design the fountain. Sicard was one of the foremost sculptors of his day but had never been to Sydney, so had to work with photographs and sketches of the proposed site. He chose a number of classical themes to celebrate the French-Australian liaison. Atop the fountain is Apollo giving life to nature, with the three side piers containing respectively Diana, Goddess of Hunting bringing harmony to the world, Pan watching over the fields (see photo below of his wonderful head) and the powerful figure of Theseus conquering the Minotaur, symbolising sacrifice for the common good (see photo below of all that rippling muscle).

The story from concept to completion was not an entirely easy one. Archibald’s bequest required the funds set aside for the sculpture to be held for seven years after his death in 1919 before it could be touched, by which time it had grown to the considerable sum of  £17,000. The sculpture was commissioned and completed in Paris in 1926, but upon arrival in Australia £675 of customs duty was assessed as payable. By this time however the funds from the bequest were exhausted and for three years the sculpture sat in packing cases, whilst bureaucratic madness reigned, until finally the Federal government stepped in and waived the duty, allowing the fountain’s opening to proceed in March 1932. Sadly M Sicard never visited Sydney to see his masterpiece in position.

The current conservation work being undertaken for the City of Sydney involves the careful cleaning of all the elements, the waxing of the bronze figures and the repointing of the granite base and surround. We are happy to report that the fountain is in good shape. The waxing helps to not only bring up the colour of the bronze, but more importantly to protect the surface from the corrosion that results from traffic pollution and salt in the sea air. However, in time the wax breaks down so these regular visits (every five years or so) ensure M Sicard’s work continues to delight both Sydneysiders and visitors alike.


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