‘Canberra’s first lady’ receives a makeover

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Australian War Memorial Senior Conservator George Bailey says every five years the AWM’s sculpture Bellona is washed, waxed and polished. Photo Kerrie Brewer.

Australian War Memorial Senior Conservator George Bailey recently penned the following short letter about “Canberra’s first lady”.

It isn’t Rosemary Follett, Canberra’s first Chief Minister, nor is it Jennifer Morrison or Lady Lynne Cosgrove. We are talking about Canberra’s first public outdoor work of art, Sir Bertram Mackennal’s sculpture War, better known locally as Bellona, the Roman goddess of war.

Mackennal gifted Bellona to the Australian Government in 1915 as a tribute to the Australians who fought at Gallipoli. She was first displayed outside of the Federal Parliament in Melbourne in 1921. It was not a popular placement, and she was moved to Canberra in 1926 where she was the city’s first displayed piece of outdoor public art. She stood outside of the Albert Hall for many years, being the unfortunate subject of many practical jokes, including being dressed in bras and bikini tops, being painted several times, and even having her more prominent female attributes polished to a bright yellow sheen with Brasso.

In 1954, in the week prior to Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Canberra, Bellona moved from there to the grounds of the Australian War Memorial. Over the next 27 years, she spent time outside of the Administrative Building in Parkes, and in the grounds of Government House. After lobbying from Australian War Memorial art curator Judith McKay, Bellona returned to the Memorial grounds in 1981.

When the Memorial’s Sculpture Garden was being developed in 1993, Bellona again stood proudly outside of the Albert Hall. Unlike her earlier posting, this time she attracted little attention from pranksters; perhaps testament to a changing acceptance of public nudity.

Since 1999, Bellona has stood near the Lone Pine in the Memorial grounds. Every five years, the Memorial’s conservators give her a thorough wash, wax and polish. At 113 years old, she’s still in great condition, and she deserves nothing less.

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