When I admired the former General Post Office (GPO) spandrels, or rather the adornments thereon, I had never heard of a spandrel – though, as it turns out, I have seen and admired many. Lest my reader be as ignorant as I in architectural nomenclature, a spandrel is the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure.
When admiring the former GPO building do make your way around to the Pitt Street side of the building and look up at the spandrels.
I am certainly very used to seeing royal crests, gods, goddesses, animals and figures from mythology adorning spandrels. In addition to many of these the more observant or informed visitor will notice other less traditional figures here.
When designing the GPO, architect James Barnet commissioned Italian sculptor, Tomaso Sani to create a series of basso relief carvings with a difference for the ground floor arches on the Pitt Street side of the building. These carvings depicted contemporary people at work.
At the time, the carvings caused a significant amount of controversy with Barnet and Sani being accused of a lack of aesthetic taste and professional judgment by traditionalists, including the press and Members of Parliament, one of whom referred to the carvings as ‘tedious abortions’. How dare Barnet and Sani tinker in such a sacrilegious and totally inappropriate way with classical tradition on what was to be Sydney’s greatest public building.
This depiction of real people, in, heaven forbid, semi comical, satirical poses was too much for the establishment. Barnet won the battle and the carvings went ahead.
The offensive carvings included a scientist, a judge, a fishmonger, a sailor, a postman, a printer and an architect, the latter in the guise of a Michelangelsque God looking remarkably like Barnet himself.
The scientist depicted (left of my main picture), along side Judge Sir James Martin, is Archibald Liversidge, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. These two carvings along with adjoining ones represent Science, the Law, Commerce and Mining.
Perhaps the most controversial carving (picture three) is that of Post Master General, Francis Wright, depicted delivering a letter to a servant girl who is flirting with him.
Today’s visitor, if they notice the carvings at all, will wonder what the 19th century kerfuffle was all about.
My final two pictures depict more typical and accepted adornments for colonial buildings of the day.
Address: 1 Martin Place
Directions: On Martin Place between Pitt and George Streets