Strangers visiting Melbourne, the chief city of Australia, will not be
allowed to overlook four great marble statues which adorn the public
library. They are the gift of Mr. W. J. Clark, one of the distinguished
public men of that growing empire. These statues represent, in a sitting
posture, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and the
Princess of Wales. They are larger than life, and, according to the
Australian press, they are admirable works in every respect.
They were executed by Charles Summers, a sculptor long resident in that
colony, where he practiced his art with great success, as the public
buildings and private houses of Melbourne attest. Many of his works
remain in the colony, and he may be said to be the founder of his form
of art in that part of the world. The history of this man's life is so
remarkable that I think it will interest the reader.
Sixty years ago, Charles Summers was a little, hungry, ragged boy in
English Somersetshire, who earned four cents a day by scaring the crows
from the wheat fields. I have seen myself such little fellows engaged
in this work, coming on duty before four in the morning, and remaining
till eight in the evening, frightening away the birds by beating a tin
pan with a stick, not unfrequently chasing them and throwing stones at
them. He was the son of a mason, who had eight children, and squandered
half his time and money in the tap-room. Hence, this boy, from the age
of eight or nine years, smart, intelligent, and ambitious, was
constantly at work at some such employment; and often, during his
father's drunken fits, he was the chief support of the family.
Besides serving as scare-crow, he assisted his father in his mason's
work, and became a hod-carrier as soon as he was able to carry a hod.
Sometimes he accompanied his father to a distant place in search of
employment, and he was often seen on the high-road, in charge of the
drunkard, struggling to get him home before he had spent their united
earnings in drink. In these deplorable circumstances, he acquired a
dexterity and patience which were most extraordinary. Before he was
twelve years old he began to handle the chisel and the mallet, and his
work in squaring and facing a stone soon surpassed that of boys much
older than himself. He was observed to have a strong propensity to do
fancy stone-work. He obtained, as a boy, some local celebrity for his
carved gate posts, and other ornamental objects in stone. So great was
his skill and industry, that, by the time he was nineteen years of age,
besides having maintained a large family for years, he had saved a sum
equal to a hundred dollars.
Then a piece of good fortune happened to him. A man came from London to
set up in a parish church near by a monumental figure, and looked about
for a skillful mason to assist him. Charles Summers was mentioned as the
best hand in the neighborhood, and upon him the choice fell. Thus he was
introduced to the world of art, for this figure had been executed by
Henry Weekes, a distinguished London sculptor. The hardships of his
childhood had made a man of him at this early age, a thoughtful and
prudent man. Taking with him ten of his twenty pounds, he went to London
and applied for employment in the studio of Henry Weekes. This artist
employed several men, but he had no vacant place except the humble one
of stone polisher, which required little skill. He accepted the place
with alacrity and delight, at a salary of five dollars a week.
He was now in his element. The lowliest employments of the studio were
pleasing to him. He loved to polish the marble; the sight of the
numerous models was a pleasure to him; even wetting the cloths and
cleaning the model tools were pleasant tasks. His cheerfulness and
industry soon made him a favorite; and when his work was done, he
employed his leisure in gaining skill in carving and cutting marble. In
this he had such success, that, when in after life he became himself an
artist, he would sometimes execute his idea in marble without modeling
it in clay.
When he had been in this studio about a year, his employer was
commissioned to execute two colossal figures in bronze, and the young
man was obliged to spend much of his time in erecting the foundry, and
other duties which he felt to be foreign to his art. Impatient at this,
he resigned his place, and visited his home, where he executed medallion
portraits, first of his own relations, and afterwards of public men,
such as the Mayor of Bristol, and the member of Parliament for his
county. These medallions gave him some reputation, and it was a favorite
branch with him as long as he lived.
Returning to London, he had no difficulty in gaining employment at good
wages in a studio of a sculptor. Soon we find him competing for the
prizes offered by the Royal Academy of London to young sculptors; the
chief of which is a gold medal given every two years for the best group
in clay of an historical character. A silver medal is also given every
year for the best model from life.
At the exhibition of 1851, when he was twenty-four years of age, he was
a competitor for both these prizes. For the gold medal he executed a
group which he called Mercy interceding for the Vanquished. For the
silver medal he offered a bust of a living person. He had the singular
good fortune of winning both, and he received them in public from the
hands of the President of the Academy, Sir Charles Eastlake. Cheer upon
cheer greeted the modest student when he rose and went forward for the
purpose. He was a young man of great self-control. Instead of joining in
the usual festivities of his fellow-students after the award, he walked
quietly to his lodgings, where his father and brother were anxiously
waiting to hear the result of the competition. He threw himself into a
chair without a word, and they began to console him for the supposed
disappointment. In a few minutes they sat down to supper; whereupon,
with a knowing smile, he took his medals out of his pocket, and laid one
of them on each side of his plate.
From this time he had no difficulties except those inherent in the
nature of his work, and in his own constitution. His early struggle with
life had made him too intense. He had scarcely known what play was, and
he did not know how to recreate himself. He had little taste for reading
or society. He loved art alone. The consequence was that he worked with
an intensity and continuity that no human constitution could long
endure. Soon after winning his two medals his health was so completely
prostrated that he made a voyage to Australia to visit a brother who had
settled there. The voyage restored him, and he soon resumed the practice
of his art at Melbourne. The people were just building their Houses of
Parliament, and he was employed to execute the artistic work of the
interior. He lived many years in Australia, and filled the colony with
his works in marble and bronze.
In due time he made the tour of Europe, and lingered nine years in Rome,
where he labored with suicidal assiduity. He did far more manual labor
himself than is usual with artists of his standing, and yet, during his
residence in Rome he had twenty men in his service. It was in Rome, in
1876, that he received from Melbourne the commission to execute in
marble the four colossal statues mentioned above. These works he
completed in something less than eighteen months, besides doing several
other minor works previously ordered.
It was too much, and Nature resented the affront. After he had packed
the statues, and sent them on their way to the other side of the globe,
he set out for Melbourne himself, intending to take England by the way
for medical advice. At Paris he visited the Exhibition, and the next
day, at his hotel, he fell senseless to the floor. In three weeks he was
dead, at the age of fifty-one years, in the very midst of his career.
"For him," writes one of his friends, "life consisted of but one
thing--_art_. For that he lived; and, almost in the midst of it, died.
He could not have conceived existence without it. Always and under every
circumstance, he was thinking of his work, and gathering from whatever
surrounded him such information as he thought would prove of service.
In omnibuses, in railway carriages, and elsewhere, he found
opportunities of study, and could always reproduce a likeness from
memory of the individuals so observed."
I do not copy these words as commendation, but as warning. Like so many
other gifted men of this age, he lived too fast and attempted too much.
He died when his greatest and best life would naturally have been just
beginning. He died at the beginning of the period when the capacity for
high enjoyment of life is naturally the greatest. He died when he could
have ceased to be a manufacturer and become an artist.