Paul Montford was an English sculptor who emigrated to Melbourne aged 54 in 1923. The community of sculptors active in Melbourne (and, indeed, Australia) at that time, and the amount of work available, was limited. In fact, much of the available work was for war memorials, and Montford repeatedly saw himself as disadvantaged when officialdom took into account its preference for Australians, particularly those who had served in World War 1 (which Montford had not, due to his age). In fact, it seems that the fact that he had not served also disadvantaged him in Britain, this being a factor in his decision to emigrate. He was attached to socialist ideas, and Prof Kate Darian-Smith states in her Introduction, “…his personal identity did little to advance his standing as an ‘appropriate’ artist to commemorate Australia’s wartime sacrifice”.
Hence his first few years in Australia were somewhat of a struggle, although by the late 1920s, his reputation had grown and he achieved some prominence until his untimely death in January 1938 from leukaemia, the tragic consequence of a massive overdose of radium administered as a treatment for tonsillitis. Although this sounds odd to us today, I’ve been told that medication using radium was not unusual in those days.
His best known works are the sculpture on the Shrine of Remembrance and the statues of Adam Lindsay Gordon (in Spring St), John Wesley (Lonsdale St) and Peter Pan (at the Zoo). He also designed the Malvern War Memorial, in the lobby of the Malvern Town Hall.
The book is not really a biography. It’s treatment of Montford’s life is heavily concentrated on the period from 1923 to 1930, as revealed by letters written primarily by Montford and mostly to his brother Louis. He wrote regularly until Louis dies in 1930, and the text of the surviving letters is reproduced almost in full. These are a “one-way” street, as none of the replies have survived.
The letters contain a lot of material about Montford’s quests for work and the progress of his various assignments, but in addition there are many gems. They give an intriguing insight into “middle class” life in Melbourne in the 1920s; the attitudes of Australians towards Britain and the British (and vice versa) are fascinating; and it’s interesting to get a glimpse into the functioning of the ‘sculpture’ community in that era. Issues touched on are the attitude of Montford to employed help, both domestic and in his studio; his relationship with his three children (he was very close to them); his report on the attitude of the Australians to the appointment of Sir John Baird as Governor-General in 1925 (indignation that a duke or an earl had not been appointed!); numerous references to his various illnesses and those of his wife Marion and the children, and the varied “treatments” availed of; the inconvenience caused by a strike of wood yard workers (!) and later on, his experiences with his first car.
The author is Catherine Moriarty, who has obviously devoted a huge effort to the work. Not only is her research into every facet of the topic evident, but there’s a detailed catalogue of Montford’s works where they have been able to be traced (in England as well as in Australia). The introduction to the catalogue states that “…building this catalogue necessitated a considerable amount of fieldwork”! The tone of the acknowledgements makes it clear that Moriarty is a researcher of sculpture at the University of Brighton (England) , but apart from this, there is little information about her.