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Hoff, George Rayner (1894–1937)

by Noel S. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), sculptor and teacher, was born on 27 November 1894 at Braddan, Isle of Man, son of George Hoff, bricklayer, and his wife Elizabeth Amy, née Coole. Early training came from his father, who restored ancient buildings and was a capable woodcarver and stonemason. After the family had moved to Nottingham, Rayner worked in a mason's yard after school and entered an architect's office at 14. From 1910 he studied drawing and design at Nottingham School of Art.

Enlisting for active service in World War I in 1915, Hoff served in France in 1916. Next year he was transferred to a topographical survey unit and made maps from aerial photographs until the end of the war. Returning to Nottingham, he married Annis Mary Briggs on 30 June 1920 at Sutton in Ashfield.

In 1919 Hoff had begun studies at the Royal College of Art, London, under the professor of sculpture, Francis Derwent Wood, R.A. He exhibited two sculptures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1920 and one in 1922. Winning the Prix de Rome scholarship in 1921 he visited Italy next year. In 1923 he was awarded the Royal Society of British Sculptors' diploma. After meeting the Australian architect Hardy Wilson at Naples, and discussions with Derwent Wood in London, he accepted appointment as teacher of drawing, modelling and sculpture at East Sydney Technical College in May 1923 and reached Sydney in August.

A short, dark and physically powerful man, Hoff possessed a mature outlook and a strong commitment to his art. At the college he energetically reorganized the courses and was a vigorous administrator. He created a lively school of sculpture that attracted a group of notable students and in 1931 he was placed in charge of the entire art department. In the same year he edited and produced The Art of Eileen McGrath, a book on his first successful diploma student, and concentrated on raising the profile of the 'National Art School' by astute publicity.

Joining the Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1924 Hoff served on its executive and became a force for liberal ideals combined with stylistic moderation in art. His friendship with Norman Lindsay and Hardy Wilson influenced the ideas underlying his work and his sources of inspiration were broad. Graeco-Roman, European Renaissance, Assyrian, Oriental and Art Deco features can be noted in a stylistically diverse and eclectic output.

The medal for the Society of Artists was created by Hoff in 1924. Later he produced, among others, the Sir Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal for the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1927), the Sir John Sulman medal for the Institute of Architects of New South Wales (1932) and the contentious Victorian centenary medallion (1934). He showed sculpture regularly with the Society of Artists, the Victorian Artists' Society and the Australian Sculptors' Society. He entered various official and prize exhibitions, and was awarded the Wynne prize in 1927. In 1937 he exhibited with, and became a foundation council-member of, the short-lived Australian Academy of Art.

The most significant visible contribution that Hoff made was his large-scale sculpture for various buildings and public memorials: he produced the large reliefs of the war memorial at Dubbo, New South Wales, in 1925, the figures for the National War Memorial, Adelaide, in 1927-31 and the more numerous and controversial sculptures for the Anzac Memorial, Sydney (made with the aid of students and assistants) in 1930-34. Hoff was also responsible for fine decorative reliefs for the now demolished Liberty Theatre (1934) and Hotel Australia (1934-35). After winning the competition he had begun work on the King George V Memorial, Canberra, in 1936, which was completed posthumously by John Moorfield.

Rayner Hoff's last years took a tragic turn. He was embroiled in controversy with the Catholic Archbishop Kelly, the Master Builders' Association of New South Wales and the local chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects over the morality of the form and symbolism of the Anzac Memorial Group 'Sacrifice', 'Crucifixion of Civilisation' and 'Victory' in 1932. He was also attacked for his design for the Victorian centenary medal in 1934. His consumption of alcohol became excessive, his health deteriorated and his marriage fell apart. After being dumped by a wave while surfing, Hoff died of pancreatitis on 19 November 1937 at Waverley and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. A memorial retrospective exhibition of his sculpture and drawings was held at the David Jones' Art Gallery, Sydney, in 1938. Examples of his sculpture are held by the major Australian galleries.

Rayner Hoff stands as the outstanding public sculptor in Sydney between the wars. Given the demands of his administrative and educational duties, his contribution to Australian art was considerable. While not an artistic innovator himself, he did much to help to build an attitude of liberal tolerance for the younger artists of the time.

Select Bibliography

  • W. L. Beauchamp et al, Sculpture of Rayner Hoff (Syd, 1934)
  • G. Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788-1975 (Lond, 1978)
  • K. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1980)
  • Art in Australia, Oct 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Nov 1937.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Noel S. Hutchison, 'Hoff, George Rayner (1894–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hoff-george-rayner-6696/text11553, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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