This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931), sculptor, was born on 12 June 1863 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, second son of John Simpson Mackennal (1832-1901) and his wife Annabella, née Hyde, both Scottish. He was educated at the Melbourne Model School and King's College. His initial training was undertaken by his father, a locally prominent architectural modeller and sculptor, and was reinforced by studies at the National Gallery School of Design under O. R. Campbell from 1878.
Advised in 1881 to study in Europe and promised employment by the visiting English sculptor Marshall Wood, Mackennal left Australia in 1882. Upon arrival in England he found that Wood had died. Mackennal then shared a studio with student friends Charles Douglas Richardson and Tom Roberts. Disillusioned after a few months instruction at the Royal Academy of Arts schools, he went to Paris where he obtained tuition by visiting the studios of artists and sculptors. Securing a commission for a bust of a British army officer in 1884, Mackennal returned to London where he married Agnes Spooner. They then visited Italy and returned to Paris. In extreme poverty, early in 1886 Mackennal was appointed head of modelling and design at the Coalport Potteries, Shropshire. His relief, 'The Five Foolish Virgins', was accepted that year for the Royal Academy's summer exhibition.
Commissioned to design the relief panels on the façade of Parliament House, Melbourne, Mackennal returned and set up a studio in Swanston Street where, as Arthur Streeton recalled, on the last Friday of each month he entertained at his Bohemian supper-table two or three favourite guests. Despite commissions (1888) for the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street, and some for busts, he lacked sufficient clients. When his model for the monumental group 'The Triumph of Truth' only received second prize (the first prize was not awarded) in a National Gallery competition, Mackennal, following the advice of the visiting Sarah Bernhardt and obtaining a loan from Frank Stuart, returned to Paris in 1891.
In 1892 he exhibited two sculptures at the Old Salon and next year his life-size figure 'Circe' was awarded an honourable mention. In need of funds, in 1893 he briefly became an assistant to the Scottish sculptor William Birnie Rhind in Edinburgh. However, at the 1894 Royal Academy summer exhibition 'Circe', with its pedestal concealed for the sake of modesty, caused enough of a stir to make his name. Another major sculpture in the Symbolist style, 'For she Sitteth on a Seat in the High Places of the City' (sometimes called 'Rahab'), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, confirmed his position in London as an important young sculptor. Private commissions were followed by others from public bodies for statues of Queen Victoria in England, India and Australia. In 1900, when Mackennal visited Victoria to supervise the installation at Ballarat of his statue of the Queen, he failed to gain the commission for Melbourne's royal monument. In 1901 he was involved in another skirmish with the trustees of the National Gallery over their offer for the full-size bronze cast of 'Circe', eventually sold to Carl Pinschof but later bought for the gallery.
In 1907 Mackennal's marble group, 'The Earth and the Elements', and in 1908 his 'Diana Wounded' were bought by the Chantrey bequest and placed in the Tate Gallery, London. He produced the medals for the Olympic Games held in London in 1908 and next year was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. In 1910 he designed the coronation medal, the currency, postage stamps and military honours for King George V and received the commission for the tomb of King Edward VII, St George's Chapel, Windsor. He produced commemorative monuments for Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as an equestrian statue of Edward VII for London and two marble statues of George V for India. Mackennal was appointed M.V.O. in 1912 and knighted in 1921—the first Australian-born artist to be so honoured. In 1922 he was elected R.A.
His bronze pedimental group, 'Phoebus Driving the Horses of the Sun' for Australia House, London, was erected in 1923. In 1926 he visited Australia and New Zealand, exhibiting at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in October. His proposal for a sailor's memorial on the Sow and Pigs Rocks, Sydney Harbour, was rejected, but he was offered a commission for the Cenotaph, Martin Place. On his return to England he continued his usual strenuous production schedule with monumental figures of Cardinal Moran and Archbishop Kelly for St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and the Cenotaph figures, along with the Lord Curzon memorial monument and a design for the Port Said War Memorial.
Sir Bertram Mackennal died suddenly on 10 October 1931 from rupture of abdominal aneurysm and was buried in Torquay cemetery, Devon. His wife and daughter survived him. In 1933 the Royal Academy honoured Mackennal and George Lambert with a retrospective exhibition.
Mackennal was strongly built, slightly above medium height, with blue eyes. Edmund Fisher was reminded of 'a fighting curate', observing that 'Mackennal has the strong artistic brain in the hard, business head'. Although he was seen as a conservative academic sculptor by London art circles in the late 1920s, in the 1890s his Symbolist-style sculpture, influenced by Auguste Rodin, was thought to be extremely 'French' and very advanced. Mackennal's work is widely represented in British and Australian collections.
Noel S. Hutchison, 'Mackennal, Sir Edgar Bertram (1863–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackennal-sir-edgar-bertram-7387/text12843, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 September 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986