Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society
Keane, The Revd Bro. S.B. 1981, 'Pietro G. Porcelli, sculptor, 1872-1943', Early Days, Volume 8, Part 5: 9-28.
Pietro Porcelli was Western Australia’s first local sculptor. He created bronze and stone memorials of several of our outstanding citizens and many War Memorials to soldiers of the First World War. But practically nothing has been written about his work save a passing reference in the newspapers of the day, noting the unveiling of one of his works; and a couple of lines in books on Australian art. 1 Of the man himself, only faint memories survive in the minds of a few elderly citizens. This paper is an attempt to vindicate the memory of an artist who made a significant contribution to the cultural history of this State.
Little is known of Pietro Giacomo Porcelli’s antecedents. His father, Leonardo Porcelli, was a Master Mariner whose four sailing vessels traded around the Mediterranean from his native town of Molfetta on the Adriatic. 2 After he migrated to Australia, he was first employed on the construction of the Gabo Island lighthouse off the coast of New South Wales; going later to New Zealand, he again engaged in fishing and was among the first to explore the coasts of those islands for fishing purposes. When he returned to N.S.W. in 1880 he continued as a fisherman, and invented a trawl net suitable for those waters.
The son Pietro was eight years of age when he accompanied his father to Sydney, but it is uncertain whether he was born in Italy or Australia. Nothing is known of the mother, save her maiden name, Anna Caputi. The young Pietro evinced a passion for art from an early age, was encouraged in this interest, and received the groundwork of his training in Sydney under the guidance of Signor Achille Simonette 3, instructor, in sculpture at the New South Wales Academy of Art which had been established in 1875; and under Lucien Henri, who had been appointed instructor in modelling and design at the Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1881. 4 Pietro’s father next sent him to Naples to study under D’Orsi, then President of the Royal Academy. 5 He proved an apt pupil and in three years, completed his technical training in chisel art and modelling. 6 Before he was twenty-six years of age, he had obtained the Diploma of the Royal Academy of Maples; 7 and had considerable success in exhibitions, winning two gold medals, three silver medals for figures, and an honourable mention for conventional artistic treatment of foliage. 8
It was while in Naples that he created a head of Brontolone, a bas-relief of Pygmalion and Galatea, and a small bust, “The Little Derelict”, a study of a waif, which has often been copied by sculptors in other countries.
Beginning of Career in W. A.
The young Porcelli returned to Australia to join his father in Sydney for a brief period. But the Eastern States were then suffering an economic depression, with failed banks, declining business and much human frustration and misery, so they joined the multitudes lured by the glow of Golden West, travelling by the ‘Cape Otway’ to arrive in Fremantle on 18th August 1898. They took up residence at 8 Henry Street in the town that was later to remember him as ‘the well-known Fremantle sculptor’.
The father set up in business as an importer of Italian goods, trading in lines for which his country is noted: advertisements in the local newspapers told of fine, imported macaroni available at his store in Pakenham Street. 9 In a short space of time, Leonardo Porcelli became the friend and counsellor of his fellow-countrymen.
The young Porcelli lost no time in establishing his reputation as a sculptor. Within a few days of his arrival, he sought the acquaintance of Eugenio Vanzetti, a financial and mining agent whose company occupied offices in Hay Street, Perth; who gave Pietro a formal introduction as ‘the distinguished Italian sculptor’ 10 to Bernard H. Woodward, the Director of the West Australian, Museum and Art Gallery.
Pietro Porcelli, residing in old Fremantle at the turn of the century, would soon have become aware of the newly-acquired prosperity of the fast-developing colony. The population of Western Australia had increased four-fold in the decade to 1900, reaching 139,708. In the same period, Fremantle increased from 5,607 to 14,704. No doubt the Porceilis, father and son, were among the large crowd present on the 12th September 1900 to welcome the ‘Himalaya’, the first inward British Royal Mail steamer to berth at Victoria Quay. Viewing the near-completed Harbour, they would have admired the genius of the Engineer-in-Chief, C. Y. O’Connor, and also the wisdom and foresight of the Premier, Sir John Forrest — the ‘benevolent despot’ who, on the advent of responsible government in 1890, had guided the State from the slough of Crown Colony days.
Bust of Sir John Forrest
By December 1898 Porcelli had completed a life-size bust in plaster-of-Paris of Sir John Forrest, the first such representation of a leading citizen by a local artist. The sculptor, who in this new environment, was without any means of support, endeavoured to attract a buyer by advertisments in all the local papers, and wrote to Alexander Forrest appealing to him to purchase the bust, 11 but with no success. Its subsequent history is difficult to trace. It appeared with other works of the sculptor at the annual exhibition of the W. A. Society of Arts in 1924 12 and at some time later, must have been acquired by the Forrest family, for in 1939 it appeared on auction at Bell’s Auction Mart in Perth at a sale of some of the effects of Lord and Lady Forrest. Following a strong protest by interested persons present, who maintained that such a fine memorial ought to be preserved for public display, the bust was passed in; 13 and in November of
that year, was purchased by the Joint House Committee of Parliament for the sum of £40, ($80). It rested temporarily at the head of the stairs of the Legislative Assembly. 14 Today this bust takes pride of place in Forrest Foyer, the main Entrance Hall of Parliament House.
Early Religious Works
Early in 1899 Porcelli prepared, to the order of Father Ryan, O.M.I., a reredos panel of The Last Supper in plaster-of-Paris, modelled from Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated painting, and measuring six feet by three feet. It was placed in St. Joseph’s Convent Chapel, Adelaide Street, Fremantle; 15 was later moved to the presbytery at St. Patrick’s Church.
A few years later, a reproduction was made for a church at Beaconsfield. 16 Today, one of the panels resides in the chapel of the Christian Brothers in Ellen Street, Fremantle; but the whereabouts of the other panels is not known.
Another of Porcelli’s religious works has seemingly been lost. The sculptor was commissioned by Bishop Gibney, of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Perth 17 to prepare crayon pastilles in black-and-white of ‘The Seven Last Words’ of our Lord.
A few years after his arrival, the sculptor was engaged on a memorial to the Hon. William Edward Marmion, a prominent citizen who died in 1896.
A group of friends made application to the Fremantle Council in August 1900 to secure a fitting tribute to their late honoured citizen. As insufficient funds were raised to allow a statue to be erected, it was decided to spend £200 on a Celtic Cross, this being a popular form of memorial in both England and Ireland at that time. 18 The design was by the well-known Fremantle firm of architects, Charles L. Oldham, A.R.I.V.A. and J. Herbert Eales, F.W.A.I.A.; the sculptor was Signor Porcelli, assisted in its preparation and erection by V. Reilly.
The brown freestone, imported from Waverley, New South Wales 19 (probably on the recommendation of the architects) proved to be an excellent texture for the sculptor’s skill. The memorial was unveiled by Sir John Forrest on the 9th January 1902, It still stands today at the junction of Adelaide, Queen Victoria, Parry and Edward Streets, on the triangle of land where the Proclamation Tree was planted in 1890 on the Colony’s attaining Responsible Government.
The Marmion Memorial brought Porcelli into prominence as a skilled artisan.
Alexander Forrest Memorial
In April 1902 the sculptor began an association with one of the State’s leading masons, the firm of Wilson, Grey & Co., in preparing the first public statue of a local citizen.
Alexander Forrest had been a successful explorer and surveyor, businessman, and several times Mayor of Perth. Hjs monument was erected by friends of the family, who
thought that his memory should be commemorated in a worthy manner; and, in deference to the wishes of his brother, Sir John Forrest, decided to erect a public monument. The Memorial Committee appointed by the Perth City Council at first thought of placing the order for a statue in Europe: however, it subsequently decided to encourage local industry and the contract was given to Wilson, Grey & Co. 20
The figure, first built in the nude, was then draped. Guildford clay was used — a medium highly spoken of by Porcelli for sculpture. On completion, the clay figure went on view at the contractor’s city works and was the recipient of high praise. Close friends of Alexander Forrest described it as ‘a speaking likeness’; and Mr Howitt, instructor at the Technical School, considered that ‘the statue is as good as had been produced in Australia — a revelation — none of Mr Bertram MacKennal’s Australian productions had been so good as that of Mr Porcelli’s’. 21 After being modelled in plaster-of-Paris, the replica was sent to one of the principal foundries in Italy for the casting in wax and subsequently in bronze.
The statue represents Alexander Forrest in his exploring garb, in which he traversed many hitherto-unknown parts of the State. The figure is shown with a gun slung across the shoulder, while one hand carries a sextant. The high, old-fashioned button leggings which reach above the knee, were necessary in the rough terrain traversed, and are cleverly worked. Dapper boots have given way to the blucher — a useful footwear for hard travelling. The features and expression of the subject have been caught remarkably well: which is all the more credit to the sculptor as it seems he never met Alexander Forrest.
The bronze figure, a little larger than life, stands aloft some ten feet from the ground, mounted on a pedestal of Donnybrook stone, placed at the south-east corner of the junction of Barrack Street and St. George’s Terrace. The unveiling ceremony was performed by the Premier, Mr Walter James, on 28th August 1903.
A tribute to the skill of the artist was written some years later: ‘The stalwart body is in an easy attitude, with strength and a certain suggestion of indomitableness in every line of it. Hie head is noble and firmly poised, the expression of the face is kindly but full of of character. There is courage and daring in the set of the jaw, benignity in the lips, and a seasoned wisdom, born of natural intelligence and long experience, in the deep-set eyes below the fine spreading brow.’ 22
The sculptor received wide acclaim for his first public statue. His father, however, was ageing and Pietro took charge of the small shop. Advertisements of fine Italian culinary delights appeared in the name of Pietro Porcelli. 23 His father died suddenly on 13th October 1905, after having been taken ill at a friend’s house and, though taken to hospital, did not recover. A Fremantle newspaper paid its tribute to Leonardo Porcelli, as ‘the father of the well-known sculptor’. The Italian residents of Fremantle, Perth and districts lost their oldest friend and one whom they were wont to speak of as ‘Padre and Padrone’. 24 That the Italian ‘father’ was held in high esteem was evident by the many fellow-countrymen at his funeral at Fremantle Cemetery the following day.
To Pietro it was a tragic loss. On his father’s grave he erected a simple marble cross inscribed with his personal tribute:
He was a Man and a Worker for Humanity in all things.'
C.Y. O’Connor Memorials
On many occasions, suggestion had been made that a memorial should be erected to honour the work of C. Y. O’Connor, the Engineer-in-Chief whose genius had created the Fremantle Harbour, ‘the front door to Australia’, 25 the Coolgardie Water Supply and the railways. Sir John Forrest, on a visit to Perth in 1903, during an interview with Signor Porcelli, had expressed his great pleasure at the work of the sculptor 26 and also told of his intention of arousing interest in erecting a suitable memorial to C. Y. O’Connor. 27 In keeping with the tide of thought, Porcelli completed, by March 1906, a life-size bust 28 suitable for taking bronze castings or a replica in marble.
In May 1906 J. Herbert Eales published a design of a lighthouse intended to be one of the fixed entrance lights of Fremantle Harbour: it incorporated a two-and-a-half times life-size bronze figure of O’Connor. It was the architect’s intention to seek Porcelli’s assistance so that ‘the features and perhaps other important characteristics of the deceased engineer might be unmistakeably reproduced.’ 29
Meanwhile the sculptor made a brief visit to his homeland, returning from Naples on 30th January 1907. 30 On his return to W.A., he spent a few months prospecting in the Nannine district, but the search for gold proving unsuccessful, he returned to the port ‘determined to stick to art’. 31
The Goldfields’ Water Supply administration decided to place a bronze bust of C. Y. O’Connor in a prominent position at Mundaring Weir, and purchased Porcelli’s work, which was completed by 23rd July 1907 and unveiled soon after, seemingly without ceremony. It was placed at the southern end of the wall overlooking the waters of the Weir. When in 1951, the wall was to be raised, the memorial was moved to its present site on the opposite slope, and the Donnybrook freestone pedestal replaced by one of more durable granite.
A fibreglass replica of the bust adorns Kingsbury Park in Wilson Street, Kalgoorlie, as a mark of respect of the citizens of Kalgoorlie.
Sir John Forrest, while expressing pleasure that something was to be done as a tribute to O’Connor, considered that the Mundaring memorial was altogether inadequate. ‘What is required is a heroic statue, not a bust. I should say Mr Porcelli would be able to execute the design for such a statue in the same way as he did the one of my late brother in Perth’ 32 and he hoped the government would soon move in this direction.
A suggestion by a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Fremantle, 33 was taken up by the Fremantle Citizens’ League who in March 1907 asked for land outside the new Railway Station to be made a garden square containing a memorial to O’Connor, 34 which would create an attractive entrance to Fremantle. 35 A Memorial Committee succeeded in gaining Government assistance by promise of a pound for pound subsidy up to £500; and when municipal councils throughout the State were approached, many goldfields towns made substantial contributions. A One Shilling Fund was publicised through ‘The West Australian’ and the Fremantle ‘Evening Mail’; Sir John Forrest offered £50 provided ten other equal donations were received and this was achieved. The final figure, with bank interest, totalled £1,599.19s.7d. 36
The Memorial Committee conducted an Australia-wide competition for a statue, resulting in seventeen entries, which were judged by Bernard H. Woodward, Director of the fast-growing Museum and Art Gallery; J. W. R. Linton, a well-known figure in the art world of Perth; and Joseph F. Allen, Mayor of East Fremantle and honorary architect on the Memorial Committee. Pietro Porcelli’s design was selected as the best and he was given the commission to carry out the memorial. 37
Porcelli designed the statue in conventional mode, the celebrated engineer standing bare-headed with one foot forward and arms crossed, the left hand clasping a roll of plans and the right hand extended in an attitude suggestive of thought, as he gazes out. The eyes of the figure are most arresting. Porcelli inserted bronze-work to represent the pupil of an eye, and by this cunning craftsmanship has achieved an expression of wonder. Many people have commented favourably on this unusual effect.
The statue was originally executed in clay and (apart from the bronze castings which were done at one of the principal foundries in Italy) everything was of local material. Of the sculptor's commission of £1,500, 75% was spent in Fremantle. 38
The statue, ten feet six inches in height, is set on a two-foot concrete foundation and a twenty-foot-high pedestal of local granite. The engineer’s name and years of his life are emblazoned within a bronze wreath on the face of the pedestal: on the side faces are bas-relief panels depicting Mundaring Weir, the Goldfields’ Water Supply Scheme and Fremantle Harbour, while the rear panel depicts the Swan View railway tunnel. Four bronze dolphins guard the four corners of the pedestal.
Pietro Porcelli’s masterpiece was erected in the grass plot adjoining the offices of the Fremantle Harbour Trust, with a view over the Harbour, and where it would be easily discernible from the decks of passing vessels. 39 It was unveiled on 23rd of June 1911 by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Gerald Strickland, in the presence of a large gathering of representative citizens. Speaking at the ceremony, the Mayor of East Fremantle averred that the people of Western Australia had ‘more value for their money in this memorial than in any other similar work in Christendom.’ 40
Sir John Forrest’s tribute took place almost a year later, when he presided at a ceremony where the monument was officially handed over to the Fremantle Harbour Trust. Sir John, after paying tribute to O’Connor as a man of integrity and honour, a man of unblemished character with an untarnished reputation, and a kind and generous friend, thanked the sculptor for his fine achievement and commented that it was a happy inspiration to create the engineer’s figure standing erect, ’thinking in bronze’. 41
The statue was moved from this placement in 1928 to a location close to the railway footbridge leading to ‘C and ‘D’ Sheds; whence in 1974 it was transferred to its present site in a traffic roundabout near the Fremantle Port Authority’s new offices.
A copy of the sculptor’s model today occupies a prominent place on the mantelpiece of the Council Chamber at the Kalgoorlie Town Hall.
Bust of Lord Hopetoun (Marquis of Linlithgow)
Meanwhile, in the years prior to completion of the C. Y. O’Connor Memorial, Porcelli had occupied himself with some other projects.
In 1907, following the death of the Marquis of Linlithgow, moves had been initiated in Victoria to erect a suitable memorial in his honour; for, as Lord Hopetoun, he had at one time been Governor of Victoria and later became the first Governor-General of Australia. A competition was held and in November 1908 Porcelli sailed aboard the steamer ‘Oruba’ to Melbourne to submit his entry for the sculpture. On arrival, he found his models broken to pieces!
Although no concession of time was given to him, as was allowed with some of the works that came out from England, Porcelli carried out hurried repairs that enabled his model to be judged with the ten others. However, three entries received more prominence: two were by Victorian sculptor C. Douglas Richardson; the other by William Birnie Rhind, an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, was accepted, and the statue was unveiled in St. Kilda Road on 15th June 1911 by the Marquis’ son. 42
Porcelli, disappointed, and finding the Melbourne climate unendurable, returned to Fremantle. Soon after this, he lent his life-size bust in plaster-of-Paris of the Marquis of Linlithgow to the W.A. Art Gallery, where it was on display for some years.
Bust of Sir James Lee Steere
A bronze bust of another well-known public figure was completed in the years preceding the First World War. 43 Sir James Lee Steere was the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, sworn in on 29th December 1890. Porcelli’s bronze bust now stands on the first floor foyer of Parliament House, Perth.
Religious art-work played a significant role with Pietro Porcelli. Heading his regular advertisement in a Fremantle newspaper, was mention of his ability to execute designs for all ecclesiastical requirements. One such commission was a marble font at St. Paul’s Church in Hampton Road, South Fremantle in 1912, ‘the various panels and colouring and the general finish are undoubtedly work of a great art,’ was the tribute of the Secretary of the Vestry. 44
Another of the sculptor’s works, little-known, is the alto-relief marble head of the Christ 45 for long a feature inside the entrance to St. Patrick’s Church, Fremantle; now placed on the Parry Street frontage.
On the 8th January 1910 Pietro Porcelli married Martha Massie Goodwin at the District Registry Office, Fremantle. Martha had migrated here from a modest background in England, where her father had been coachman at Eithnog Hall, Welshpool. The family bond was strengthened with the birth of two children: Maria
Anna, born 12th February 1910; Leonardo Pietro bom 29th June 1911. They lived at first at 84 Pakenham Street, one of a pair of semi-detached houses, only a stone’s throw from an old, stone-walled, shingle-roofed store in Marine Terrace which he utilised as his studio. Soon after their marriage, they moved to 192 South Terrace for two years while he worked on the O’Connor memorial.
Maitland Brown Memorial
In the months that followed the unveiling of the O’Connor statue, Porcelli enjoyed much public acclaim. In January 1912 he was commissioned by Mr George Julius Brockman to prepare a memorial to Maitland Brown. It was to be a bronze bust, set on a granite pedestal, with a total height of eighteen feet, which Brockman intended to present to the residents of Broome. It was finally decided, however, to place it in the Esplanade Park at Fremantle, where it was unveiled by Lady Forrest on 8th February 1913 in the presence of a number of citizens, including relatives of the two explorers.
The four panels of the pedestal are decorated in bas-relief, one depicts Messrs Goldwyer, Harding and Panter, the three explorers whose bodies were recovered by Maitland Brown at Boola Boola, another panel shows the scene where the men were murdered; the third panel contains a portrait of the donor; and the fourth bears the inscription.
F. H. Piesse Memorial
Following the death of Frederick Henry Piesse in June 1912, the residents of Katanning decided at a public meeting to erect a statue to his memory. Porcelli was entrusted with the commission which was to be a bronze statue on a granite pedestal and foundation. Working from a few old photographs, the sculptor completed, in a few months the first stage — the clay model — in a room at the Perth Modelling Works in St. George’s Terrace, which was then open for public inspection during office hours. Close on five hundred people visited the artist’s studio and expressed appreciation of the true facial expression and characteristic pose the sculptor had created of’the father of Katanning’ 46
Following completion of the plaster-of-Paris casts of the clay model and base, these were shipped to the Neapolitan Artistic Foundry in Italy where the bronze statue was to be cast. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914, with its threat to shipping, compelled the ship conveying the statue to Australia to find a neutral haven in the Javanese port of Batavia, delaying delivery for some eighteen months; 47 so that it was not until 31st May 1916 that the statue was unveiled by Sir John Forrest, in the presence of a large number of townspeople and representatives of every district from Narrogin to Albany. The total cost of the statue was £837.1 ls.2d. 48
A.M.P. Building Statuary Group
Around 1914 Porcelli began an association with a firm of metal craftsmen, Wunderlich’s Ltd. who had opened a factory in East Perth in 1909. In May 1914 the firm had secured a contract for a group of statuary — the emblem of the Australian Mutual Provident Society — to adorn the parapet of its new building at the corner of
William Street and St. George’s Terrace, the architect for which was C. L. Oldham. The allegorical group consists of a central figure of a woman holding in her hands the symbols of peace and plenty, supported at the base by the figures of a man, a woman and a child; the central figure is ten feet high. The modelling of the group was entrusted to Pietro Porcelli* and was carried out at Wunderlich’s factory in Lord Street. The figure was first modelled in plastic clay, then reproduced in plaster; plaster dies were made and these then cast in zinc, so that a stamping in sheet bronze could be prepared for each part. Finally the stamped parts — which number many — were rivetted and brazed together. 49
The hammered and built bronze statuary was raised atop the new premises for the opening on 26th April 1915, where it remained for more than sixty years. Following demolition of the A.M.P. Building in the 1970’s, the statue was purchased by Mr Lew Whiteman and placed in his private historical collection at Guildford.
*(This group of statuary was not be seen at close range, but from far below, at street level, and often from a great distance. It was therefore not designed naturalistically, but was constructed of flat bronze sheets. Ed.)
Plaques and Medallions
Another project of the versatile sculptor around this time was a number of large, oval plaques and medallions, measuring one metre by sixty centimetres moulded in plaster-of-Paris. His first known work in this medium completed in 1911, was a model of the profile of King Edward VII, known to many as ‘the World’s Peacemaker’.
Later, during the First World War, he undertook a series of patriotic plaques50 which he proposed to mount on polished jarrah and to present to the Art Gallery. It seemed to him that replicas of the collection, similarly mounted, would be attractive in any drawingroom.
Many bronze castings in medallion and plaque form were produced around this time by the joint enterprise of Signor Porcelli and the firm of Messrs Willmont and Goodall, metal founders of Hay Street, Perth. The castings were taken from plaster mouldings prepared by the sculptor. The metal founders were directed by Porcelli to produce castings in bronze. 51 This was the first work of its kind to be undertaken by the foundry. Porcelli’s subjects for these plaques, which were executed at his studio in Brisbane Street, included King George and Queen Mary, Lord Kitchener, Lord French and Admiral Jellicoe. A relief of the Prince of Wales may have been included in the collection, as this appeared at the W.A. Society of Arts exhibition in 1924 accompanied by bronze medallions of Lord Kitchener and Lord French. 52 However, the sculptor’s intention that they form a display in the Art Gallery was never realised and it seems that none of these patriotic plaques and medallions has survived.
Patrons of the arts were not numerous in these depressed economic times and the sculptor found it difficult to make a living from his sculpture alone. From the comparative comfort of Claremont in 1913, he moved to the more proletarian area of East Perth, and the family did not live more than a few years in any establishment. One has the distinct impression that Signor Porcelli was not motivated by pecuniary interests. It seems he lived very much for the present and spent readily the little he earned.
By January 1916, he was suffering from acute sciatica which rendered his left leg almost useless. As a result, he was faced with severe financial hardship. He wrote appealingly to Sir John Forrest, Sir Winthrop Hackett and the secretary for the W.A. Art Gallery, asking them to purchase his plaster-of-Paris bust of the Marquis of Linlithgow which had been on loan to the Art Gallery for the past eight years. 53 He was willing to accept any offer from them so as to alleviate his economic hardship. Sir John Forrest, who held Porcelli in high regard as a sculptor, wrote sympathetically to Dr Battye, asking if something could be done to help the sculptor in his dilemma, commenting: ‘It seems a pity that a man with such ability cannot make a living here.' But Dr Battye’s curt reply stressed that the Art Gallery’s financial position was the ‘reverse of comfortable,’ and it was his opinion that the bust was worth little — a mere £2; ‘to give £3 would be charity.’54
With the nation involved in war from 1914 to 1918, citizens throughout the State responded to the call to arms in a way that demonstrated their deep-felt loyalty. There were few families who were not represented in the enlistments to the armed forces, and there were many who suffered bereavement. As time went on, soldiers returned, many wounded or broken in health; and there was sincere sympathy to the relatives of those who made the supreme sacrifice. The years following the War saw many Councils move to commemorate the courageous spirit of the Australian forces.
Boulder War Memorial
Porcelli’s first venture into war memorials began early in the war years. A Boulder hotel-keeper, Mr David C. Donaldson, approached the sculptor in 1916 to execute an imposing monument to the Anzac heroes, which he intended to donate to the Boulder Municipal Council.55 It was to be a bronze statue of an Australian soldier, with head bare, in ‘defiant attitude’, his rifle gripped in fearless style. It stands, a little larger than life, atop a pedestal of Mahogany Creek granite, thirteen feet in height, 56 the overall height of the memorial reaching twenty feet. The figure was cast in Italy and exhibits a fine quality of workmanship in keeping with the sculptor’s previous works. The unveiling took place in the Boulder Railway Reserve on Sunday 25th July 1920, the ceremony performed by Major-General Sir Talbot Hobbs, in the presence of the Premier, the Hon. James Mitchell, C.M.G. and His Grace Archbishop Riley, D.D. amidst a large gathering of townspeople. But whilst lavish praise was bestowed on the excellence of the memorial, no mention was made at the ceremony, of its creator.
Victoria Park War Memorial
Porcelli’s first War Memorial to be unveiled was in the quiet suburb of Victoria Park. The proposal to erect a suitable memorial had arisen among the Mayor and Councillors as early as November 1914 and Porcelli was commissioned to design and erect the memorial. It was a seven-foot-high figure of a sturdy Australian soldier with rifle and bayonet on guard, standing atop a massive pedestal of Donnybrook stone ten feet high, inset with marble tablets bearing the names of the 490 men from the suburb who rendered voluntary service in the course of the war. The statue was cast in cement.
This particular form of cement figure was the first of its kind to be erected in this State, and was all locally produced.
The unveiling ceremony was carried out on 4th August 1917 by His Excellency the Governor, Sir William Ellison-MacCartney, in the presence of a large assembly of religious, political and civic representatives and local citizens. 57 Porcelli was present to witness its unveiling and was the recipient of praise on his artistic success, the memorial being ranked "among the most successful of the well-known sculptor’s work.’ 58
The memorial was destined for a short life, however, owing mainly to senseless vandalism. In July 1925 damage done to the gun required considerable repair. Further vandalism and weather deterioration weakened the joints of the statue, prompting its removal. Today the Victoria Park War Memorial erected in March 1957 consists of a ten-foot-high cross of Sydney freestone on a smaller pedestal.
The Jewish War Memorial
The Jewish War Memorial in King’s Park stands on a grassy slope commanding a splendid view of the Melville Water. The memorial, beautifully carved in Donnybrook stone, takes the form of a graceful column rising from a base of granite, crowned with a globe of cast bronze bearing the shield of David. Upon the base, which is surmounted by lions’ heads at the corners, are inscribed the names of the fallen. The honorary architect was Mr T. Anthoness, and to Porcelli was entrusted the sculpture. 59 His Excellency the Governor, Sir Francis Newdegate, unveiled the memorial before a large gathering of the Jewish community on 6th June 1920. 60
Guildford Soldiers’ War Memorial
When the Guildford Council considered erecting a soldiers’ memorial, and set aside £350 for this purpose, a local resident, by invitation, submitted plans of a rotunda; but Council subsequently decided to erect an obelisk, Porcelli being given the responsibility of its erection. 61 The sculptor, not being a stone-mason, would have sub-let and supervised the granite work.
This plain, yet commanding, granite obelisk stands in the picturesque Stirling Square, visible from both highway and railway.
The foundation stone was laid by General Birdwood on 4th January 1920. A large and representative gathering was present to witness the unveiling ceremony performed by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Francis Newdegate on 6th November 1920. 62
Albany War Memorial
In the spring of the same year, 1920, the Mayor and Councillors of Albany broached the subject of a suitable memorial to perpetuate the memory of the fallen from their district. At a public meeting £300 was subscribed and Council decided to expend £500 on the memorial. Porcelli’s design for a granite obelisk was accepted. As distance mitigated against his being able to supervise its erection, a local resident, Mr J. A. Hartmann, was contracted to carry out this work. 63
The memorial consists of a square and tapering obelisk, made up of six stones placed on a concrete foundation and standing twenty-six feet in height. The stone, which is locally quarried pearl-grey granite from Mount Melville, is all rough-dressed, with the exception of the face which bears the names of the fallen.
It stands at the intersection of York and Duke Streets, near the triangular grass plot alongside St. John's Church, where a large crowd assembled to witness the unveiling ceremony by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Francis Newdegate on Sunday 21st August 1921. 64
In the following years, Porcelli was responsible for the design and erection of three war memorials which all exhibited a similar feature... the sculptor adorned the sub-base of the pedestal with small, crouched lions carved attractively in white Angaston marble from the Barossa Valley in South Australia. The inspiration may have come from the Trafalgar Square memorial in London where large bronze lions guard the four corners of the memorial.
Yarloop War Memorial
The sculptor's first work to exhibit these lions appeared in the small timber town of Yarloop some 120 kilometres south of Perth, on the memorial, which is a dressed granite obelisk erected by residents of the town and district in memory of those who took part in the First World War. It was unveiled on Anzac Day 1922 by Lieut.-Colonel Manning, D.S.O., O.B.E. Bronze slabs on the memorial now bear the names of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the two World Wars. 65
Leederville War Memorial
A similar memorial, but of larger size, was unveiled by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Francis Newdegate on 25th May 1924 66 in the pleasant grassed surroundings of the Leederville Town Hall in Cambridge Street. The memorial, erected by the people of Leederville to their fallen comrades, is a rough-hewn granite obelisk rising from a massive base. The bronze slab on the front of the pedestal bears the names of the eighty-eight fallen volunteers from the district. The faces of each side of the sub-base of the pedestal name the countries where campaigns were conducted.
As Porcelli did not possess a permanent studio, he prepared the memorial in the yards of Peters and Gillies, Monumental Masons. While he was sculpting the marble lions, he sub-let the granite work.
Kalgoorlie War Memorial
The Kalgoorlie War Memorial, which completed this trio, stands in a prominent position facing the Kalgoorlie Railway Station. It has been judged ‘a fine speciment of the work of the State's well-known sculptor’. Shields on the four sides of the sub-base bear the words: Gallipoli, France, Belgium and Palestine, with suitable heraldic devices. Marble figures of lions, in miniature, rest upon the buttressed corners of the base. Above the cap of the pedestal is the figure of an advancing Australian soldier of heroic stature. The granite pedestal was quarried and brought from Bulla Bulling: the figure was cast in Italian bronze. 67 It was unveiled on 21st October 1923 by Major-General Sir Talbot Hobbs in the presence of a large assemblage of citizens and returned soldiers.
Moora War Memorial
Suggestions for a suitable memorial were first raised at a meeting of the Moora Roads Board in May 1920, and on Empire Day, 24th May 1924 the memorial was unveiled by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Francis Newdegate. The design was prepared by Eales and Cohen, architects of Perth; and is a mediaeval wayside cross the like of which is found in English country districts. The rough base and steps of granite are surmounted by a tall, slender shaft with a carved crown covering a cross; the total height from base to apex is twenty-eight feet. Four of the octagonal bases are recessed and filled with bronze panels bearing the names of the fallen soldiers; the remaining four have alternate carved and traceried panels. The carving was entrusted to Pietro Porcelli and the metalwork to C. R. Wilson; Brine and Sons were the local contractors. 68
Effigy of the Bishop of Geraldton
In 1922 Porcelli was commissioned by Wunderlich’s Ltd. to model a recumbent figure of the late Bishop of Geraldton, Bishop Kelly D.D. 69 who had initiated the building of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral at Geraldton, commenced in 1914. Porcelli’s arresting sepulchral effigy is placed near the altar in the side chapel within the Cathedral. Metal craftsmen completed the task in hammered and built bronze.
Headstones in Perth and Fremantle Cemeteries
Porcelli was attracted to the soft, Donnybrook stone as an excellent medium for sculpture, and he accepted contracts for memorial headstones. His personalised headstones in Fremantle and Karrakatta Cemeteries reveal a close empathy between artist and subject.
His most arresting achievement in this type of work is his headstone to ‘Wylie’ Evans 71 erected in Fremantle Cemetery in June 1916 to the memory of the twenty-year-old daughter of a well-known Perth family. It is a symbolic female figure in high relief.
Another attractive headstone is on the Poniros grave at Karrakatta Cemetery where the figure is that of an angel standing guard. This was erected in May 1918.
The Peterson family grave at Fremantle Cemetery also bears an example of Porcelli’s work, dating from January 1912; and on the Mews family grave at Fremantle Cemetery is a Celtic Cross by the sculptor: this was executed in July 1923.
Tom Edwards Memorial Fountain
Another fine example of the sculptor’s work is the fountain erected to the memory of Tom Edwards ‘working class martyr who sacrificed his life on the Fremantle wharf in 1919.’ ‘Greater love hath no man.’ The rustic granite and marble fountain, standing six feet high, was unveiled on 7th December 1919 by the President of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Mr Renton, whose life had been saved by the brave action of Tom Edwards. 72
The memorial stood for many years outside the Trades Hall in Collie Street, Fremantle but after this building was sold in the 1970s, the fountain lay in the Federation’s yard in Fremantle, its components in considerable disarray. However, it has recently been re-erected in High Street adjacent to the Fremantle Town Hall. 73
Lord Forrest Mausoleum
Following the death of Lord Forrest in 1918, the Forrest family commissioned architect George Temple-Poole to design a suitable mausoleum to be placed in Karrakatta Cemetery, the sculpture to be done by Pietro Porcelli. 74
At the four corners of the dignified sarcophagus are the finely-worked feet of a kangaroo — symbolic of Western Australia and reminiscent of the intrepid explorer. Tribute is expressed in the Latin inscription, whose English translation is:
’Noble indeed is he, if any noble be, who himself was the source of his nobility.’
Fremantle Fallen Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Memorial
The year 1925 saw Porcelli engaged on the Fallen Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Memorial at Fremantle.
Early in 1919 several prominent Fremantle citizens had initiated a movement to erect a suitable memorial to perpetuate the memory of the city’s fallen heroes, 75 and suggested as the site, Monument Hill — then a desolate, rugged outcrop whose unkempt appearance could be transformed into a beauty spot. The design for a dignified, stone memorial was prepared by the honorary architects, J. F. Allen and C. H. Nicholas 76 but owing to lack of finance, the project hung fire for several years. It was not until 1927 that vigorous efforts were made to complete the project ;77 and on Anzac Day 1928 His Excellency Sir William Campion dedicated the tablet on the memorial which was in the course of being erected; and on Armistice Day the same year, the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Robert McMillan, performed the unveiling ceremony amidst what was still a barren, limestone waste. 78
During the economic depression of the early 1930s, sustenance work, financed by State and local government authorities, was evolved to alleviate distress. One such project involved the laying-out of lawns and flower beds on Monument Hill, this finally creating around the War Memorial, an area of restful beauty.
Porcelli’s involvement was around July 1925, when the work was under financial threat, but it is difficult to ascertain for what length of time he was engaged on the memorial.
Midland Junction Railway Workshops’ War Memorial
The crowning achievement of the sculptor’s war memorials was also his last public work in this State.
The proposal to erect a memorial at Midland Junction Workshops to the employees of the locomotive workshops who had enlisted in the A.I.F. was first suggested in February 1919. It was later proposed that it be placed outside the Central Railway Station in Perth and be in memory of the fallen soldiers from the whole of the railway service. However, little was accomplished for several years and in 1922, the original scheme was reverted to, for a memorial to be erected at the Midland Works. At first it was desired to obtain a replica of the memorial at the Ipswich Workshops, Queensland — an Anzac in fighting uniform by the sculptor Joseph Whitehead of London; but this proving too expensive, the committee in 1924 invited competitive designs to cost no more than £1,000. Porcelli was selected and formally commissioned to execute the figure and to be the contractor for its erection. 79
Porcelli's design represents “Peace” — a bronze draped female figure standing upon a sphere which surmounts a granite column. She is calling upon the world for peace; the right hand raised demanding silence, and the left hand holding a palm leaf; the head is crowned with a wreath of laurel and the left foot is trampling upon the sword.
The bronze casting was executed in Naples. 80 A feature was the specially designed bronzed name and inscription tablets which are secured to three faces of the die stone. The total height of the memorial is twenty-eight feet. It is placed thirty feet from the east end of the Midland Junction Workshops Offices and fifteen feet from the boundary fence, this position being chosen so that the Workshops' employees and the public could both have an uninterrupted view of the fine memorial. The area is embellished with lawns, footpaths and a new boundary fence.
The memorial was unveiled in December 1925 by His Excellency the Governor, Sir William Campion, K.C.M.G., D.S.O. who said that 'the memorial's emblem of peace stands as a source of inspiration in regard to a true spirit of sacrifice and unselfishness, exhibited so well by those who served.' 81
With the completion of this fine memorial, a chapter of the sculptor’s life closed. During the mid- 1920s Porcelli suffered many frustrations and disappointments. There was the slow-moving and uncertain progress of the Fremantle War Memorial and, more significantly, great disappointment over the memorial to the late Lord Forrest; for when in 1923, the Forrest Memorial Committee invited submissions of models for a statue from local sculptors, the judges (Mr G. T. Poole and Sir J. Talbot Hobbs) reported that 'none of the three submissions was of sufficient merit, and it was impossible to obtain from local artists, work of such quality as the importance of this memorial demands.' 82 Sir Bertram MacKennal was requested to design and deliver the statue.
Porcelli, in a state of turmoil, abandoned the State of his adoption and sought a more prosperous future in the Eastern States, moving with his family to a small abode in Park Street, South Melbourne.
His major contribution during his years in Melbourne, was his work on the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance, for which he carved the twelve panels in the inner shrine, under the watchful eye of the sculptor Paul Montford. The panels are carved in full relief. Plaster-casts, half the size of the panels, were made from clay models
designed at Montford’s studio. Porcelli was able to keep to these correct dimensions by using a pointing machine. He caught the spirit of the originals using his faithful chisel and mallet 83 — the pride of the artist who has faith in his own hand — while outside, the stone-masons worked with screeching pneumatic tools upon the colossal groups of statuary which guard the outside of the shrine. Mr J. Hamilton had charge of the carving of these huge groups of granite, hewn intact from a site near the Buchan Caves. But in the book which describes the construction of the Shrine, (The National War Memorial of Victoria by A. Pratt and J. Barnes) there is no reference to Porcelli’s contribution.
Porcelli's sojourn in Victoria covered a decade but no details are known of his other work there. He does not seem to have exhibited at any galleries in Victoria, as the catalogues of sculpture exhibitions of the period bear no reference to him, 84 and he exerted no impact on the art world of Melbourne.
He returned to Perth in 1939. The reason is not known, but he was now approaching the twilight of his life. His son Leonardo Pietro had established himself successfully in Perth as a music teacher. Porcelli first took up residence at 208 Lake Street, but frequent changes of abode over the next few years are indicative of ever-pressing financial burdens. He is remembered at a boarding house in Parker Street as a retiring figure who, until the end, continued shaping his beloved clays into plaster-cast figures in his room-cum-studio.
Pietro Porcelli was on the local scene for more than a quarter of a century but little is known of his private life and he remains a quiet, indistinct figure. Few details of his domestic life are known. There is no self-revealing correspondence. He appeared to set little store on earthly possessions and never accumulated much substance. After his marriage, the family frequently moved their habitation from one modest house to another, first in Fremantle, then Claremont, then Melbourne and finally to Perth, indicative of financial pressures. It seems he lived very much for the present and spent readily the little he earned. When he was working on his models for statues of prominent citizens — Alexander Forrest, C. Y. O’Connor and R. H. Piesse — at his studio in Fremantle or Perth, it seems he welcomed visits by curious residents, and even by inquisitive urchins who daily invaded his artistic domain, and he delighted in explaining his work to them.
He wrought, imbued with animation, even vivacity, and went to great lengths to ensure the high quality of all his works, whether the medium were limestone, plaster-of-Paris, marble or bronze. Throughout his life he showed no interest in working with granite, as he did not consider himself a stone-mason. Where his commissions involved granite, he would sub-let this work to others.
He saw himself always as an artist, a sculptor and was greatly attracted to the soft, Donnybrook stone.
His interests were not confined to his artistic work. On one occasion, he was asked to head a deputation of the ‘fish fellows’ of Fremantle to the government Minister for Fisheries, and to act as their spokesman in regard to various piscatorial grievances, 85 this indicating the high esteem in which he was held by the townspeople of the Port, including many of his fellow countrymen.
In all matters pertaining to his work, quality was an all-important factor, and his close scrutiny to detail marked the care and pride of a true artist.
He is recollected as a familiar figure in the yards of the leading firms of Monumental Masons of the time — G. C. Smith & Colk, Peters & Gillies and Wilson, Grey & Co. A few of his contemporaries remembered the lean, moustached Italian as an eccentric figure: a bit of a Bohemian. Temperamental tantrums, evident in many artists, characterised his work habits. It seems he worked at will and often for only a few hours at a time and apparently only to make a few pounds for the essentials of living. Such was his way of life that he would appear for work, not in the overalls of a stone-mason, but always in collar and tie, arriving and working at odd hours.
He was of a retiring nature and exercised very little impact on local art circles of his time.
One of his contemporaries recalls Porcelli, in the company of a few acquaintances, spending the remnant of his days under the shade trees of Russell Square, discussing the events of the day and the inevitability of their homeland at war. The almost-idyllic scene makes a heart-warming memory.
As unobtrusive as his arrival, so was his departure. A brief word in the daily newspaper formally announced his death on 28th June 1943. The phrase in his death notice: ‘Everlasting memories of our beloved father' suggests much more sunshine than tears.
His works live on after him. The quality of his art never varied, be the patron rich or poor, the order for a crayon portrait or marble statuary. He faced many hardships and difficulties during his lifetime yet he surmounted these obstacles to bequeath to us many fine works of art.
Western Australia has good reason to be proud of the sculptor, Pietro Porcelli.
1. Encyclopedia of Australian Art by Alan McCulloch; ‘The Story of Australian Art’ by William Moore.
2. Evening Mail 19/10/1905 p. 2
3. West Australian 6/10/1902 p. 3
4. A Study of Australian Art, H. E. Badham, Currawong, Sydney 1949
5. Golden Gate 17/11/1911 p. 6
6. The Argus 8/11/1930 Supplement p. 4 c.f. Western Mail 19/9/1913 p. 27
7. Western Mail 3/3/1906 p. 3 c.f. Western Mail 4/12/1909 p. 14
8. West Australian 6/10/1902 p. 3
9. The Umpire 23/11/1901
10. Letter Vanzetti to Woodward 23/9/1898
11. Letter P. Porcelli to A. Forrest 23/12/1898
12. W. A. Society of Arts Catalogue 1924
13. West Australian 28/8/1939
14. ibid, 8/11/1939
15. The Umpire 18/3/1899 p. 2
16. Golden Gate 17/11/1911 p. 6
18. West Australian 10/1/1902 p. 10
20. ibid. 6/10/1902 p. 3
21. ibid, p. 3
22. ibid, 16/3/1929
23. Evening Mail 28/9/1905 p. 2
24. ibid, 19/10/1905 p. 2
25. Western Mail 1/7/1911 p. 43
26. Evening Courier 27/2/1903 p. 1
27. Western Mail 3/3/1906 p. 24
29. ibid, 5/5/1906 p. 24
30. Passenger lists Australian Archives
31. Evening Mail 20/2/1908 p. 8
32. Western Argus 21/5/1907
33. Western Mail 15/6/1912 p. 14
34. Letter from Fremantle Citizens’ League to Fremantle City Council. Files 57/07
36. Western Mail 17/2/1912 p. 20
37. ibid, 4/12/1909 p. 14
38. West Australian 24/6/1911 p. 13
40. Western Mail 1/7/1911 p. 43
41. ibid, 15/6/1912 p. 14
42. Weekly Times 26/12/1908 illustrations of the three designs, c.f. Argus 16/6/1911 p. 6 the unveiling ceremony
43. Western 4/12/1909 p. 14 c.f. 19/9/1913 p. 27
44. Golden Gate 12/12/1912 p. 5
45. Golden Gate 17/11/1911 p. 6
46. Western Mail 19/9/1913 p. 13
47. ibid, 2/6/1916 p. 18
48. Great Southern Herald 3/6/1916 p. 2
49. “Forty Years of Wunderlich Industry 1887 — 1927". Bloxham & Chambers, Sydney, 1927. p. 71
50. Letter from P. Porcelli to the Rt. Hon. Sir John Forrest 19/1/1916
51. Western Mail 13/10/1916 p. 28
52. Catalogue of W. A. Society of Arts 1924
53. Letter from P. Porcelli to the Rt. Hon. Sir John Forrest 19/1/1916
54. Letter from J. S. Battye to the Rt. Hon Sir John Forrest 22/1/1916
55. Kalgoorlie Miner 8/5/1920 p. 4
56. ibid. 29/6/1920
57. West Australian 6/8/1917 p. 8
28 The Royal Western Australian Historical Society
58. Western Mail 10/8/1917 p. 42
59. West Australian 7/6/1920 p. 5
60. The Story of the Hebrew Community 1896 — 1946. P
Library p. pp. 33-35 Bait),
61. Guildford Council Minutes
62. West Australian 8/11/1920 p. 6
63. Albany Despatch 22/8/1921 p. 2
64. Albany Advertiser 24/8/1921 p. 3
65. Western Mail 11 /5/1922 p. 24
66. West Australian 26/5/1924 p. 6
67. The Western Argus 23/10/1923 p. 16
68. West Australian 27/5/1924 p. 4
69. Western Mail 28/9/1922 p. 25
70. Forty Years of Wunderlich Industry p. 70
71. Western Mail 20/6/1919 p. 20
72. Fremantle Herald 12/12/1919 p. 7 and inscription on the memorial.
73. Information from the Waterside Workers’ Federation office. Ed.
74. Western Mail 9/6/1921 p. 24
75. The History of Fremantle 1829-1929 J. K. Hitchcock p. 83
76. Architecture in Fremantle 1875-1915 W. Kerr p. 20
77. The Western Gateway J. K. Ewers p. 125
78. Hitchcock p. 87
79. Midland Junction Railway Workshops Files.
80. Offical Programme for the unveiling ceremony. See Files above.
81. Swan Express 25/12/1925 p. 3
82. Minutes King’s Park Board
83. The Argus 8/11/1930 Supplement p. 4
84. State Library of Victoria: Art Library
85. Golden Gate 23/2/1912 p. 5
Garry Gillard | New: 27 August, 2020 | Now: 29 August, 2020