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Capturing ‘inner life’

Portrait bust of Dr Christine Rivett

Daphne Mayo | Australia 1895–1982 | Portrait bust of Dr Christine Rivett 1951, cast c.1956 | Bronze | Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales | © Surf Lifesaving Foundation and the Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust

Daphne Mayo: Let There Be Sculpture | 4 November 2011 − 15 January 2012 | QAG | Free admission

Daphne Mayo was widely regarded as Australia’s leading portrait sculptor of her day, and she depended on portrait and public statuary commissions as the mainstay of her career. She was able to achieve amazingly lifelike characterisations of great sensitivity, their minutely-faceted surfaces quivering with life.

Like Britain’s Jacob Epstein (1880−1959), whose portraits she greatly admired, Mayo strove to capture the ‘inner life’ and emotions of her sitters as much as their outward appearance. Also like Epstein, Mayo tried to bring out what is interesting and significant in a face; as Epstein wrote in The Sculptor Speaks (1931): ‘A mathematically correct rendering of a person would neither be a work of art nor a likeness’.

Mayo’s skill as a portraitist is most evident when she admired her sitters Like John Young and her friend Dr Christine Rivett and could establish some degree of rapport with them. She especially liked undertaking portraits of men, but disliked working from photographs due to their lack of transient expression. ‘Why people don’t have their portraits made while they are still alive I don’t know’, she lamented in 1957, while struggling to achieve a likeness of the recently deceased Sir Thomas Blamey.

As for all cast sculptures, producing bronze portraits is a long and laborious process. It involves five stages: first the sculptor makes a clay model; then a plaster mould is created, from which a plaster cast is made; this in turn is sent to the bronze founder who makes another mould into which the metal is poured. Bronze casting is also very costly hence much of the proceeds of bronze portrait commissions go to the founder rather than the sculptor.