In the eye of the Court

UQ staff member Sasha Ackfun road tests the recently released guidebook to the Great Court, Carving a history: a guide to the Great Court, on location at the St Lucia campus

Have you ever stumbled into a new area and wondered, "Where am I?" The feeling that someone has after walking through a wardrobe or a magical gate to another plane of existence predominantly made of stone?

This is what I felt when I first entered the St Lucia Great Court. For those who haven’t seen this cultural and historical landmark of UQ, which included me until very recently, its sandstone walls feature hidden details and quirky carvings that even people who regularly walk the area may not be aware of.

With the release of a new guidebook, Carving a history: a guide to the Great Court, and a GPS-based app, UQ Carvings, people now have the opportunity to navigate through the history of the Great Court and its magnificent stonework. Since I only recently became a new addition to UQ myself and had never visited the campus before, I decided to grab a copy of Carving a history and wander through the Great Court to discover some of the area’s history myself.

The St Lucia campus’s centrepiece of the Great Court, the Forgan Smith building, was the first building to be constructed for the University’s relocation from Old Government House in the Brisbane CBD. That first foray into the St Lucia campus eventually expanded into the quadrangle sandstone construct you can see today. The original architects, Hennessy, Hennessy & Co, intended for the Great Court to be “original in conception” and “monumental in design”, and while using sandstone was a standard material for grand and monumental buildings at the time, what made it original and unique in that architectural era was the choice to use multiple colours and shades in the stone, from lavenders to creams and browns, rather than one uniform tone.

It’s the small details that showcase the fascinating culture and history of UQ, Queensland, Australia, and universities around the world. Through the carvings that adorn the stonework and enhance the experience of the Great Court, so much information is found on the walls. Who are these figures, creatures, and places, and what do they represent?

The University of Queensland shield carving on the Forgan Smith Building. Scientia ac labore, Latin for "by means of knowledge and hard work", is the University's motto.

Walking around the Great Court, I pass statues that pay respect to scholars, such as scientists and writers including William Shakespeare, Plato, and Charles Darwin, and happen upon friezes or murals that showcase academia, such as Schrödinger’s Cat, and depictions of historical scenes from the colonisation of Australia to the Australian Army during WWII.

As I walk through the cloisters, scattered along the columns I spy the different shields and coats of arms from Queensland, Australian and international universities, and inscriptions of academic quotations and names of significant people, such as Bacon – not delicious cured pig meat, but an acknowledgement of Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon (1561–1626).

Among the collection of carvings are some from the 1930s–50s that portray Indigenous Australians in an effort to depict a “fully representative collection of Aboriginal customs and social life”.

However, as Dr Annie Ross notes in Carving a history, these friezes and roundels were conceived during an assimilationist era when Australia had no understanding of Indigenous culture, so instead of achieving their intended purpose, they represent a very stereotypical representation of Indigenous culture through a Euro-centric, white Australian perspective.

Confucius, the Chinese sage, carved by John Muller, pre-1953

But the carvings that are most recognised, and give the Great Court its character, are the grotesques commonly misnamed as ‘gargoyles’. Gargoyles are statues that adorn the outside of gothic buildings (which UQ is not) and exclusively have water running through them or help to guide water off roofs and gutters, such as those on the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Mr John Theodore (Jack) Muller, carved by Rhyl Hinwood, 1981

Mr John Theodore (Jack) Muller, carved by Rhyl Hinwood, 1981

Grotesques on the other hand are low-relief caricature-like carvings of people with intentionally unattractive and comical depictions, and bring a little whimsy to contrast the stark outer walls of the Great Court’s sandstone buildings.

This style was chosen by University SculptorJohn Muller (1878–1953) because people higher up in the University did not want “representations of living persons” hanging from the walls of the Court. So instead, Muller chose grotesques so that the image of the subject or person was distorted. Because the grotesques were ‘anonymous’, early sculptors had the freedom to design and interpret characteristics of their chosen subjects satirically, to emphasise personal features.

UQ inauguration and tree-planting ceremony: 1909, carved by John Muller, c. 1940.

During my tour of the Great Court, surprisingly, I found grotesques on display in the exhibition space of Duhig Tower's Social Sciences and Humanities Library (Level 1).

Apparently these are grotesque portraits of Professor Charles Schindler that were rejected entries from a 1976 competition to choose a new University Sculptor.

The winner of this competition, Dr Rhyl Hinwood AM, has her portrait of Professor Charles Schindler hanging in the Great Court and went on to carve hundreds of sculptures around the campus. The tools she used to carve many of the sculptures you see around campus today are on display along with the rejected grotesques.

Most of the grotesques in the Great Court are the faces of significant people who have contributed to UQ in some fashion.
In a way, the grotesques help visitors remember that the institution in which they now stand, study, or work was founded and built by real people with their own stories, revealing a little of UQ’s life in its early days. It’s as if history has its eyes on you.

Associate Professor Charles Schindler, carved by Rhyl Hinwood

Associate Professor Charles Schindler, carved by Rhyl Hinwood

It’s a little peculiar to see, for example, a jovial man holding a mug of beer hanging above you in a place of education, learning, and research – but to see it immortalised in sandstone softens the sometimes dumbfounding feeling that the magnificence of the Great Court and the rest of the carvings emanate.

So much history beams from the walls of the Great Court if you know where to look. The University has seen many events, people, and stories, and the carvings in the Great Court stand as part of UQ’s legacy, richly detailed with the footprints of its past.

Carving a history is available for purchase at the Co-op bookshop, and the free UQ Carvings app is available for download from the App Store and Google Play.