Dear Reader – let me tell you a story – a story of Canberra’s first statue and war memorial.
In 1916 sculptor Bertram Mackennal, unable to sell this sculpture – entitled War or Bellona – Goddess of War – decided to offer it as a gift to Australia as a tribute to Australian solders in WWI (especially the ANZACs). It was accepted but it took five years before Prime Minister Hughes sent a thank-you letter – five years during which Bellona lay hidden in a Melbourne celler.
The sculpture was installed on the steps of the then Parliament House in Melbourne on ANZAC Day 1921. When Parliament moved to Canberra it was decided that Bellona’s busty company was not required and the Australian War Memorial, then under construction and perhaps an obvious home for the statue, wanted nothing to do with it. Such a display of cleavage was not appropriate for the new Capital. Anyway, in 1926 she arrived in Canberra minus her tasteful black marble plinth which was replaced with a crude concrete substitute.
Bellona, Canberra’s first statue, was placed on the southern side of the Molonglo River (pre lake days, of course) on Commonwealth Avenue between the two traffic lanes and close to the Albert Hall. Bellona was soon christened Boadicea or Bodie by the locals who loved her. The politicians, clearly of higher morals in those days, still found her hard to stomach.
People soon decided it was time for fun.
New Years’ Eve revellers on 1 January 1932 adorned Bodie with a wire street waste paper receptacle (placed atop her helmet) and a beer bottle. In 1933 her exposed bust was covered, with an article of ‘women’s wearing apparel’. In March 1939 a pair of conical breast shields made from softened gramophone records adorned her nakedness. Later she had her breasts ‘brasso’ polished by pranksters, to a high gleam.
Panic struck the hierarchy in 1954 when Queen Elizabeth II was to visit Canberra for the first time. Bellona was smack bang in the middle of the processional route – what would her Majesty think ? And worse still, what would Her Majesty think if pranksters stuck? The police assured everyone pranksters would not strike. Thirty-six hours before the arrival of the Queen, Bellona was found sporting an oversized pink bra. The next night green paint was applied. Bellona was removed. It was announced that the move and royal visit were unrelated and Bellona was just moving to her rightful home at the Australian War Memorial.
A few days later pranksters placed a tombstone on the empty site – engraved “RIP Goddess Bellona”.
As it happened, Bellona took a circuitous route to the War Memorial via a Government building in Parkes and the grounds of Government House in Yarralumla. The 3km trip to the War Memorial took around 30 years. After 12 years at the Memorial, in 1993 “the grounds for a sculpture garden required preparation” and Bellona would have to be moved temporarily again and so she was – to within 100metres of her 1926 position by the Albert Hall.
In August 1999 Bellona was moved to her current position in the new Australian War Memorial Sculpture Garden, backing on to the Lone Pine tree and at a suitably modest distance away from the memorial lest she offend 21st century visitors to the War Memorial in the way she did our early 20th century politicians. Do walk through the grass for a closer look – evidently funds were insufficient to provide a path – or were they?
The good lady disappeared from her pedestal again in late 2014 only to return a few months later. Where she had been I don’t know.
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