Art in Place #2

Tom Bass

According to art critic John Mc Donald, during the 1950’s and 60’s Tom Bass was “The only Australian sculptor who understood the importance of bringing art to the widest possible audience”.

Born in 1916 in Lithgow, New South Wales, Bass studied sculpture under the flamboyant Italian artist Dattilo Rubbo before enrolling in the National Art School in Sydney. After graduation, he went on to develop his philosophy of sculpture; being a maker of totemic forms or emblems expressing significant community and societal ideas.

In the years following the Second World War Australia witnessed a modernisation and increased internationalisation of the corporate sector. This was expressed not only in the way such entities operated but in the architecture they commissioned. Office towers were constructed utilising new engineering technology such as curtain wall facades and rose to new levels as a result of relaxed height restriction laws. The desire to appear modern and progressive led in turn to the commissioning of contemporary art for display on both the interior and exterior of many corporate, civic and campus buildings during the 1950s and 60s.

Throughout this period, Bass’s work became extremely popular with architects and public commissioning bodies, appearing in corporate, public and institutional environments all over Australia. As in Sydney, Bass’s sculptures once dotted the urban landscape of Melbourne’s CBD, but many have unfortunately been lost through demolition and re-development. Those that survive include ‘Transportation’ (former H.C Sleigh building), ‘Children’s Tree’ (former Colonial Mutual building) and the works adorning Wilson Hall on the grounds of Melbourne University.

Wilson Hall (1956) represents a collaboration between the artist and an architectural firm that would subsequently span both the academic and corporate worlds. Melbourne based Bates Smart & McCutcheon designed the new Wilson Hall (the original hall, constructed between 1878 and 1882, was destroyed by a fire in 1952) in a manner that reflected contemporary European Modernism, particularly that of Scandinavia. Walls of tan brick frame a large glazed curtain wall on the east facade, lending a lightness to the otherwise unadorned block form. Bass was commissioned to produce artwork for the building and set about creating a series of relief panels and sculptures expressing the idea of university. The four panels on the west wall represent, from left to right, observation, contemplation, teaching and learning and the talents of knowledge.  Hanging above the main entrance is a copper panel depicting the oration of Socrates at his trial.  In addition to representing the function of the hall, the motif also, in Bass’s words, reflected the “Sacrificial integrity that is essential to true scholarship”.

Bass was commissioned by Bates Smart & McCutcheon for a number of the firm’s projects during this period including ICI House in Sydney (the sculpture ‘Research’ which survived the demolition of the building in 1996 and now hangs on the north wall of the Quay Grand Suites) and the H.C Sleigh building in Melbourne.


*’Research’, 1959.

H.C Sleigh was the eponymously named company of Harold Crofton Sleigh, formed in 1895 and primarily involved in the shipping and petroleum industries. During the immediate post-war years, H.C Sleigh expanded rapidly, becoming a public company in 1947 and moving into a new Melbourne headquarters on Queen Street in 1955. Growth continued into the 1960’s necessitating the construction of a larger office building in 1962 on the corner of Queen and Bourke Streets. Executed by Bates Smart & McCutcheon the building exhibits the firm’s enthusiastic use of mixed materials and colour detailing.

Wide stone double banding wraps the building, intersected by slim columns faced with bright gold mosaic tiles. The corner columns are finished in contrasting grey-blue ceramic tiles matching the dark recessed bands that cut through the stone panels. The resulting busy grid pattern was criticised at the time for its lack of either strong vertical or horizontal expression, lending ambiguous form to the overall structure. It is, nonetheless, a well-proportioned building that, thanks to the contrast of line and colour, possesses a lightness that other stone and concrete facades of the era lack.

On the Queen Street side, in an alcove occupied by the buildings service tower, hangs a copper sculpture. Depicting a figure holding a wheel, it is titled ‘Transportation’, alluding to the prime activities of the company.

The grand building that the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Company purchased in 1923, situated on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins streets, was originally constructed for the U.S based Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1893. A prominent fixture in the CBD for 67 years, this monumental exercise in ‘American Renaissance’ style was demolished in 1960 to make way for the company’s new premises.

Sitting above a black granite faced retail space, the new office block was originally clad with a grid work of cream Italian marble and grey granite. The granite was sourced locally from the Victorian town of Harcourt and was incorporated as a reference to the previous 1893 building which had utilised the same stone in its design. The curtain wall has since been re-clad with the exception of the grey granite spandrel elements. The black granite retail component remains, with the company initials, CML, carved into the columns.


The twenty-foot set back from the Elizabeth Street frontage created a small plaza which incorporates the sculpture known as ‘Children’s Tree’. Bass initially thought the idea of a sculpture related to children, as espoused by the insurance company, somewhat strange. However, as he began work on the piece, the concept of “This little incident in the heart of a great bustling city that would remind people of their childhood” increasingly appealed to him.


Although much of Bass’s corporate work has disappeared from public view his many academic and institutional commissions remain in place, including works at Sydney University and the National Library of Australia.

Tom Bass continued working well in to the 1980’s and 90’s and in 1988 was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to sculpture. He died in February 2010 at the age of 94.


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