‘An almost inconceivable stupidity’ was one response to news in 1906 that the National Gallery of Victoria was purchasing a statue of Joan of Arc to place outside the Gallery and Public Library, alongside St. George. This came from an editorial in the Melbourne Age which questioned the wisdom of erecting a monument to the legendary heroine of France in what was still culturally a British city.
The Age’s editorial writer predicted that the statue would ‘make us a mock and laughing stock to every foreigner who hears of it’. Joan, after all, had driven the English out of Orleans in 1429 during the Hundred Years’ War. Two years later the English and their Burgundian allies had captured her and burned her at the stake after convicting her of witchcraft, all at the age of 19. But the Melbourne Joan of Arc, by the French sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet, had been selected for its artistic qualities rather than as anyone’s national symbol, and this opposition to it was short-lived.
Frémiet had already erected two successive versions of the Jeanne d’Arc in Paris (1874 and 1899), as well as replicas in Philadelphia (1889) and Nancy (1889).
The statue, in a gigantic crate, arrived by the French mail steamer Dumbéa from Marseilles on 28 January 1907 and was offloaded at the Port Melbourne pier. From here it was to be transported by train to Spencer Street station, but it was soon found that the crate on its railway car would not fit under the bridges along the route. Although the statue had been consigned with strict instructions for the case to remain upright at all times, the Chief Librarian Edmund La Touche Armstrong authorised it being laid on its side for the rail journey. From Spencer Street station it was hauled to the Library on a wagon drawn by four horses and finally lifted onto its plinth by crane on 1 February 1907.
Once in place, Joan did not have to wait long before becoming a rallying point for the French and Francophile community in Melbourne. On Bastille Day, 14 July 1917, during the dark days of the First World War, the citizens of Melbourne organised a series of public events in solidarity with their French allies, centred on the Joan of Arc monument.
In 1944, as France lay again under enemy occupation, members of the French community and Free French forces in Melbourne commemorated Bastille Day by laying flowers at the statue. In subsequent years, 11 May, the date of Joan’s great victory at Orleans, was also commemorated at the statue. This custom continued into the 1960s and in more recent years the local French community have continued to mark Bastille Day in this fashion. Days after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, flowers again appeared at the base of the statue.
When first installed in 1907, the Melbourne Joan was described as being of a ‘golden bronze’ colour. Bronze naturally darkens over time and may develop a green patina depending on environmental factors. Already by the 1920s letters were being written to the newspapers complaining about the statue’s weathered appearance. Photographs from the 1950s and 1960s show it badly streaked and stained by environmental exposure but conservation in more recent times has stabilized the surface appearance of the statue.
Early photographs show that Joan had a crown of laurel leaves fixed behind her head. This was in place at least until 1967 but at some time between then and 1972 the crown was removed, under circumstances yet to be determined.
Crowned or uncrowned, Joan still rises in heroic splendour above the relaxed denizens of the World’s Most Liveable City. The contrast is not lost on artist Oslo Davis who celebrates it in his design for the Readings bookstore paper bag and a cartoon: