Lost sculpture of Indigenous POW rediscovered

Lost sculpture of Indigenous POW rediscovered

Lost sculpture of Indigenous POW rediscovered

Dr Tom Murray recently tracked down a bronze bust of Douglas Grant, the only known sculpture of an Indigenous member of the Australian Imperial Force made during the First World War. The story of the extraordinary encounter that inspired it is just as intriguing.

In 1918 at Wünsdorf prisoner-of-war (POW) camp, not far from Berlin, an Australian Indigenous POW, Douglas Grant, sat as a model for a portrait bust by a German-Jewish sculptor, Rudolf Marcuse.

The whereabouts and survival of the bust has remained a mystery until now. The work was variously described in biographies as being made of bronze, marble or ebony, and some questioned whether it existed at all.

After many years searching across European archives, museums and art dealers, Dr Murray and his research partner Dr Hilary Howes have now successfully located Marcuse's immensely significant bust of Douglas Grant.

Aaron Pegram, Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, described the significance of the discovery: "It is the only known sculpture of an Indigenous member of the Australian Imperial Force made during the First World War. It is a nationally significant find."

It is cast in bronze, not carved in ebony or marble as conjectured, and Dr Murray said the sculpture is "immediately obvious as Grant". The bust now belongs to a retired accountant Rupert O'Flynn, living in a small village in rural Wiltshire, England, who keeps it on a plinth in his sitting room. Dr Murray said Mr O'Flynn was delighted to hear of its extraordinary history and importance.

Rupert O’Flynn with Rudolf Marcuse’s bronze bust of Douglas Grant, December 2016. Photo credit: Tom Murray.

Grant ended up in Wünsdorf POW camp as one of 1170 Australians captured in the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt in 1917. His remarkable life story, documented in Dr Murray's audio documentary that was shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s History Prize Douglas Grant: The Skin of Others can be heard in this episode of Earshot on Radio National.

Marcuse had been tasked by the Director of Berlin’s National Gallery with creating busts and statuettes of the “colourful mixture of peoples amongst our enemies”. The plan was to display them in an Imperial War Museum commemorating Germany’s anticipated victory.

Only a handful of Indigenous Australians were interned in German POW camps. This made Grant “the prize capture”, according to a former AIF colleague. Brought up by white foster parents and with only a bookish knowledge of Aboriginal culture, he was in fact a disappointment to the cultural anthropologists.

But evidently not to Marcuse, whose lively descriptions of other POWs he sculpted show that he was interested in his models as individuals with unique life stories, not just as "racially genuine types".

Photograph of Douglas Grant Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

Marcuse's bronze bust of Douglas Grant had been lost for almost a century, until Dr Murray and Dr Howes finally found evidence of its existence - on the website of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The bust of Grant was anonymously described as "Australian Aborigine" and and sandwiched between a “Siberian” and a “Somali”.

They then tracked the bust from one art and antiques dealer to the next. Finally they found a British dealer who remembered a “Negro” sculpture similar to the photograph provided by the Jewish Museum, and the name of the man who had bought it.

Rupert O'Flynn had purchased the sculpture from the London Olympia Art & Antiques Fair. He mused on the strange journey which had brought this representation of a wartime encounter to his own house in a quaint English village: “How should I have a German bronze bought in England from an Aborigine? It’s just bizarre for it to end up with me.”

Both Grant and Marcuse struggled to find a niche in later life. Grant returned to Sydney, was a confidant to Henry Lawson, and campaigned for the rights of Indigenous Australians, but suffered from the prejudice of the era and had difficulty finding permanent work. He spent most of the 1930s in a "hospital for the insane" and died in 1951, aged about sixty-six. Marcuse fled Nazi Germany for England in 1936 and was seeking to join the British war effort as a freelance artist when he died in Middlesex Hospital in 1940, aged sixty-two.

Dr Murray said: "This sculpture is a unique record of their meeting at a particular historical moment. Given its importance to the Australian nation we hope that one day it will find its way back to an Australian institution."

Read the full story on The Conversation.

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