Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Archives and collections

Collection curios: artifacts and art at Wesley College

The history of Wesley College is very much a story of people and their values, especially when it comes to striving for the very best in education. Scattered throughout the school are all sorts of interesting artworks and curios that provide added insights into the story of Wesley College. Over the years, many people have presented memorabilia and art works to the College.

The famous headmaster, LA Adamson, who led the school from 1902 to 1932, was a “devout lover of old silver, old furniture, old china, bronzes and statuary. In this connection he always had in mind the providing of standards of taste.” He placed many objects in the school for boys and visitors to admire, and thereby created a certain and unexpected ambience in what was then an all boys school. Many of these curios survive today.

LA Adamson's intricately carved sideboard

LA Adamson's intricately carved sideboard

There is a marvellous bust of Antonius of Naples, a beautiful Bythinian youth and the favourite of the Roman emperor Hadrian. This splendid bust, with hyacinthine curls and the Cupid’s bow, is a true embodiment of the Greek ideal of youthful beauty. A statuette of the Winged Victory of Naples in bronze has special place in the history of rowing at Wesley College. In the era of repeated victories in the Head of the River race in the first 15 or so years of the twentieth century, this figure was placed on the head table of what is Wesley College’s longest running annual dinner, the Boat Race Dinner. “As she stood upon a rolling ball of marble, with her wings spread as if for flight, she was intended to remind the diners how quickly she might leave us. When the years of defeat came she still occupied her place, to remind all that at any time she might return to us; but she is still fickle.”

A Wesley lion Bust of Antinous Othello

A Wesley lion, busts of Antonius and Othello

Fred J Cato, a name synonymous with a generous benefaction to the College, presented two fine statuettes as awards for the best forms in “industry, sportsmanship, conduct and team work”. These were made by Barbedienne of Paris from designs by two well-known French sculptors, Marqueste and Ducuin.

Many of the surviving art pieces are closely associated with remembrance for those who served in the Great War, later called World War I. The Venetian well-head now located in front of the St Kilda Road campus has a simple, but poignant, inscription to boys serving in the Great War. As time wore on, another year was added.

The four lions that used to guard the stairs into Adamson Hall are part of the memorial to those who died in World War I. The sculptor was Ettore Cadorin, who had a distinguished career in the USA. He provided the State of California with a sculptural gift for the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Washington DC, in 1931. The Wesley lions are said to be a “veristic representation” of the College badge. It draws its artistic inspiration from the lions in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and of others, in Venice. Each lion has a ball under one of his paws. Of course, the ball under the lion’s paw is no toy. It is connected with a Chinese myth that says “the ball is really a sacred jewel which gives to the lion his strength and his immortality so long as he retains it. So the marble lions…are pressing forward, while guarding the symbol of their strength and immortality”.

The historic Venetian well-head commemorating the Great War

The historic Venetian well-head commemorating the Great War

In 1989, a great fire swept through the heart of the St Kilda Road campus, destroying much of the archives, but one extraordinary object, although badly scorched and damaged, did survive. It was Adamson’s great carved sideboard. It was carved in 1867 by a Flemish artist by the name of Snutzel and was supposedly exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in the same year. Thankfully, following the fire, an OW funded its conservation and today it graces the Cato Room at St Kilda Road. The other great treasure in the Cato Room is the bust by Italian sculptor Pietro Calvi of a bearded Otello, c1872 in marble and bronze, wearing a burnous and clutching Desdemona’s handkerchief.

It is important for the College to reflect contemporary times and it therefore seeks to acquire new pieces for its collections, especially when they have connection to the school. In August, the newly refurbished former Wesleyan Church in Clunes was reopened and a stunning painting of Clunes by the distinguished Australian artist, Jeff Makin, was unveiled as part of this celebration. This painting, in which you can see Wesley at Clunes on the hill, now hangs in the former church. The Makin family has a strong association with the College as Jeff’s sons, Hugh and James, were both students at the College. Wesley’s collection of art and artifacts helps to tell our story, and is an important legacy for future generations.

It is also worth noting that Wesley College participates in the Commonwealth Government’s Cultural Gifts Program which means that art and certain archival material can be donated to the College in accordance with a set of guidelines and subject to appropriate approvals. If the donation is approved by the Cultural Gifts Program, the value of the item becomes a tax deductible donation.

For further information about donations to Wesley College, please contact the Director of the Wesley College Foundation, Jack Moshakis, jack.moshakis@wesleycollege.net or 03 8102 6385.

Information on the artifacts from the Adamson era was largely taken from Adamson of Wesley - The Story of a Great Headmaster, edited by Felix Meyer and published in 1932.

Jeff Makin discusses his painting of Clunes with Helen Drennen

Jeff Makin discusses his painting of Clunes with College Principal, Dr Helen Drennen