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.