To be honest, Australia cannot boast many literary greats and the average Aussie is more at home on the beach, at the footie, or having a beer at a barby than he or she is pouring over the classics or attending the Opera.
This is not to say that Australia lacks culture or class.
It has both and in abundance.
One just has to think of the movies, Pricilla Queen of the Desert and Murial’s Wedding and the inimitable Dame Edna Everage – the drab housewife from Moonee Ponds in Melbourne turned Megastar and then Gigastar. And, of course, there is Sir Les Patterson, who having honed his tools in Bangkok, worked to bring Australian culture to the rest of the world as Australia’s Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James’s and later Cultural Ambassador to the United States, though and can you believe it, Dear Reader, some consider him ‘dishevelled, uncouth, lecherous and coarse’.
Long before the above hit the screen and stage, the memory of Henry Lawson had been honoured by this bronze statue in the Domain, cited by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘a remarkable likeness to the poet’. Lawson, a contemporary of the more famous Banjo Patterson (writer of Waltzing Matilda and much more), was and remains one of Australia’s best known poets and short story writers. His stories include ‘The Drover’s Wife’ (1892) and two of his collections, ‘While the Billy Boils’ (1896) and ‘Joe Wilson and his Mates’ (1901), remain classics of Australian literature.
Should you visit the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra you can see one of my favourite works (pictured above) therein – The Drover’s Wife, a 1945 painting by Australian artist Russell Drysdale, which took its name from Lawson’s short story.
The fact that Lawson’s writings drew heavily from his experience of life in the bush is reflected in the statue by the inclusion of a swagman, a sheep dog and a fencepost – country Australia.
Lawson’s personal life (and thus his writings) was far from the much romanticised portrayal of life in the bush which visitors to Australia hear about and indeed written about by the likes of Banjo Patterson. In reality life in the bush was, most time, far from romantic and could be very grim indeed – as it still can today.
Born in 1867 in Grenfell, a New South Wales gold mining town, Lawson was confirmed deaf by the age of 14. The riches of the goldfields did not visit upon the Lawson family and his parents split in 1883. After getting published in a newspaper bought by his mother in 1887, over the next 5 years he wrote many of his most famous poems though his meagre income from writing had to be supplemented by engaging in other work. Like most artists of the day he lived from meal to meal.
Lawson married in 1896 and then intermittently lived in New Zealand until he became disenchanted with Australia and moved to England in 1900. There he wrote some of his best work before returning to Australia in 1902. He soon separated from his wife (who subsequently sued him for non-payment of child support) and became increasingly unstable. Over the next 7 years, to 1910, he was constantly in and out of mental institutions and prison, the latter for non–payment of child support and drunkenness.
Supported by friends, he pulled himself together to a large degree and continued writing, to much acclaim. In 1921 Lawson suffered a stroke but continued writing until he died peacefully in his sleep on 2 September 1922, aged 55. He was the first Australian writer to be accorded a state funeral which was attended by the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang as well as thousands others.
Lawson’s statue was sculpted by George Lambert (his last work) and unveiled on 28 July 1931 by the then Governor of New South Wales. He was subsequently (1949) depicted on a postage stamp and for almost 30 years he was depicted on the Australian ten dollar note.
Address: Mrs Macquaries Road, The Domain, Sydney
Directions: First Statue on Entering Domain from NSW Art Gallery – On Incline to the Right of Mrs Macquaries Road