Rayner HoffMarch 17, 2017
Ask sculptors to nominate the single greatest work of Australian sculpture and most will opt for The Sacrifice (1934), the centrepiece of the Anzac Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park. It’s the work of Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), an exceptional artist and inspirational teacher, whose legacy is receiving overdue recognition in a two-week exhibition at the National Art School.
Rayner Hoff: Life and Art, is a small but fascinating display of sculptures and works on paper by Hoff; his wife, Annis Briggs; and a talented group of students he mentored during his time at the NAS from 1923-37. It has been put together by Deborah Beck, archivist and collections manager at the school, who has also written a new biography of the artist, Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor.
In recent years the NAS has spent considerable time celebrating its own history, which is understandable when one considers the fragile state of art education in this city. Sydney College of the Arts has been eviscerated by its parent institution, Sydney University, largely as a cost-cutting measure, while it’s widely believed the state government is eyeing off the NAS’s Darlinghurst campus as another piece of desirable real estate for their friends, the developers.
For incoming director, Steven Alderton, as with all his predecessors, a central task is securing the future of the school. The main weapon at his disposal is the NAS’s strong sense of tradition, as demonstrated in the Rayner Hoff survey.
The exhibition is being held in the Rayner Hoff Project Space, the original studio in which Hoff made the sculptures for the Anzac Memorial. Before the art school reclaimed the entire campus the building was used for cooking classes, and the floor still bears the scars from where the stoves have been removed.
One can imagine Hoff at work in this space thanks to the many archival photos Beck has assembled. The photographs would make an excellent exhibition in their own right, with the best of them taken by Harold Cazneaux. A picture of students making a life-sized standing figure from the model reveals a quality of work that seems almost unbelievable today, when basic skills are so little valued.
Rayner Hoff was born on the Isle of Man, the son of a stone mason. The family moved to Nottingham while he was still a child. Hoff would study at the Nottingham School of Art until interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. In the army his drawing skills got him assigned to a Field Survey Company, where he was given the task of preparing detailed maps of the battlefields.
After the war Hoff transferred to the Royal College of Art, London, and became a star pupil. He had already graduated and won the Prix de Rome, when he was invited to apply for a post as a teacher of Antique Drawing and Sculpture at Sydney Technical College.
It’s not clear why Hoff moved to Australia when he might have expected to enjoy a successful career in Britain. Beck tells us that he got into trouble by taking two scholarships simultaneously when one should have disqualified the other, but this is hardly a reason for migrating to the other side of the planet. Like many of his generation he may have been sickened by the experience of war, and relished the opportunity to start his own department of sculpture in a new country.
From his arrival in Sydney to his untimely, sudden death from a gall bladder problem, Hoff proved to be a dynamic force at the Tech. He is said to have suggested changing its name to the National Art School, a title that has come and gone over the years, with the school’s fluctuating fortunes.
Hoff had a sense of destiny and set the highest standards for himself and his students. A believer in Vitalism, with its doctrine of a higher life force, he took to the Australian climate, to the sun, the beach and the bush. He made friends with Bohemians such as Norman Lindsay and Hugh McRae. One could say he quickly ‘went native’. Although there are 150 sculptures by Hoff still in existence, only one may be found in England.
It’s no exaggeration to say Hoff revolutionised the teaching of sculpture in Australia. Not only did he pass on important skills, he inculcated his charges with a can-do attitude.
With the exception of Lyndon Dadswell, Hoff’s outstanding sculpture pupils all seemed to have been female: Eileen McGrath, Barbara Tribe, Jean Broome, Jean Hallstrom, Marjorie Fletcher, Beth Macdonald, Victoria Cowdroy, Treasure Conlon, Enid Fleming. There’s another exhibition waiting to be done on the work of these artists who have been largely ignored by art historians, with the exception of Deborah Edwards.
Hoff thought Eileen McGrath, who was awarded the school’s first Diploma in Art in 1930, was “exceptionally brilliant”. He organised the publication of a limited edition book devoted to her work in 1931, three years before there was any book on Hoff’s own sculpture.
Like so many talented women, it seems McGrath stopped making work at a relatively young age when she took on the duties of wife and mother. Jean Broome-Norton stuck with it, but remains little known. The same applies to Hallstrom, who continued as a practising artist under her married name, Jean Hill. After winning the first-ever NSW Travelling Scholarship in 1935, Barbara Tribe left for England, where she would live and work for the rest of her career.
Hoff’s students followed his lead into the stylised forms of Art Deco, but not before they had a thorough grounding in drawing and sculpting from the model. Jean Hallstrom’s Ronnie (c.1936), a plaster statue of a little boy, is a masterly piece of realistic sculpture. I doubt that any student today could do something so fine, although I’d like to be proven wrong.
With the War Memorial commission Hoff needed all hands on deck to help with the carving and casting. Architect, Bruce Dellit – another exceptional talent who would die in his 40s – had designed a modern building that combined the elegance of Art Deco with the monumentality and gravitas of a medieval cathedral. Hoff sought an equivalent blend of modern style and tragic feeling in the reliefs and bronzes he planned for the site.
History tells us the work was mired in controversy. The centrepiece features the realistic figure of a young man, lying naked and dead on top of a pillar that combines the figures of his grieving mother, sister and wife. In an amazing detail the wife extends one arm to cradle the corpse’s head, the other arm holds a child. The pillar is an Art Deco version of the Greek caryatid, given a sharp edge for an age of mechanised mass destruction.
This was radical enough, but Hoff planned for two more bronzes on the eastern and western walls of the building. Both would feature naked female figures, and neither would come to fruition. The official reason for the rejection was a budget overrun, but it’s clear that the government succumbed to pressure from the Catholic Church and other guardians of morality, who objected to all that bare, bronze, allegorical flesh.
The plaster maquettes for the rejected sculptures were stored until 1958, then destroyed. It was a habit in those days. Other works of Hoff’s that had been incorporated into architectural settings were destroyed when the buildings were demolished. A good third of Tom Bass’s public sculpture would be lost in the same careless manner.
A highlight of the NAS show is a plaster reconstruction of one of the rejected sculptures for the War Memorial, The Crucifixion of Civilisation. The piece has been created by Jim Croke and other teachers and students, working largely from photographs. The work, depicts the naked figure of Peace tied to a cross, with a group of dead soldiers at her feet.
Now that the prudishness of the 1930s is forgotten it would be a fantastic project to complete the War Memorial by casting the two bronzes Hoff and Dellit had always intended for the side walls. There could be no better way of commemorating both the centenary of the Great War, and the life of a great sculptor who suffered, like Samson, at the hands of the philistines.
Rayner Hoff: Life and Art
Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School,
until 22 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th March, 2017.