Tracey Lock introduces a new addition to AGSA's Australian sculpture collection

Charles Douglas Richardson’s On the beach, 1914, is a particularly exciting discovery and an important new addition to the Australian sculpture collection. Of all the artists connected with the famous Melbourne 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Richardson remains the most intriguing and the least known. Regarded as something of a mystic, Richardson worked at the forefront of modern aesthetics in Melbourne, a major preoccupation of his being the fusing of the spiritual with the sculptural form. While his interest in the Spiritualist movement and his practices of vegetarianism and abstinence are well known, the full detail of his artistic output remains unclear. That he worked widely across artistic genres and disciplines while pursuing a personal interest in metaphysics is documented. Nevertheless, his productivity was modest and it was in the three-dimensional medium of sculpture that he achieved his most inspired forms. On the beach is one of the nation’s finest examples of Richardson’s sculptural practice, and one of only six Richardson sculptures to be identified.

Contemporaneous critics noted that, if Richardson ‘was a Frenchman he would have been described as a Symbolist’, and while On the beach embodies symbolist qualities, it shows a complex intermingling of multiple international art influences. It is most likely that Richardson witnessed and absorbed firsthand many avant-garde developments during his time studying and living in London between 1881 and 1886.

We can observe in On the beach a sinuous and arabesque device, informed by art nouveau. The inner movement of life is expressed in the youthful female figure’s spiralled, up-styled hair and nuanced resting pose. The work’s reflective emotional sentiment is further conveyed through the figure’s tilted head and her downward gaze, which looks towards a single seashell and starfish, washed onto the sandy shore base. These quiet and spiritual qualities particularly point to symbolism. With a degree of uncommon prescience, its date of 1914 also poetically marks a moment of transition, between the close of the Belle Époque and the imminent suffering of the Great War.

The form itself reflects the artist’s rigorous artistic training, and the figure’s idealised anatomy is typically meticulously and accurately observed. His craftsmanship was much admired and as a hand-modelled form – in contrast to the more common practice of a multiple, made from a cast – On the beach is a one-off edition and exceptionally rare. In its subtle surface details we can observe evidence of his careful and highly detailed approach to clay hand-modelling, the traces of which were permanently captured when the form was low-fired. Remnant fingerprints, minute tool and brushmarks on the sculpture’s highly responsive surface demonstrate the artist’s exceptional affinity and versatility with modelling form. As Richardson himself expressed, ‘the principal tools of the sculptor are his hands, by the sensitive touch of which an artist’s ideas are brought into tangible form ...’ This approach disguises the struggle to source fine sculpting materials in Australia at this time. A recent conservation assessment of this work by Artlab Australia’s Sophie Parker identified many clay inclusions in On the beach, indicating the material may have been used in an unprocessed, naturally found state.

Although modestly sized, On the beach also shows the influence of the arts and crafts movement and Richardson’s support for domestic-scale aesthetic objects for adorning the home. Fittingly, when the artist first exhibited On the beach at the Victorian Artists Society in May 1916, its immediate purchase by the famous operatic soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, during her visit to the exhibition drew much attention, with the sale being reported in Melbourne’s Argus. Melba would admire Richardson’s On the beach in the intimacy of her home at Coombe Cottage, near Lilydale in Victoria, until her death in 1931. The sculpture remained at Coombe Cottage and part of her much-loved private art collection for almost 100 years, until the sale of her estate in 2015.

The challenge of securing materials and patronage at that time and the highly technical demands of sculpture mean that few examples of pre-First World War Australian sculpture exist. In light of this, Richardson’s achievement in realising On the beach is exceptional, with the work now a much-treasured new addition to the Inner Realm display in gallery 3c in the Elder Wing of Australian Art.

Tracey is Curator of Australian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 39.