Phoebus Apollo driving the Horses of the Sun

Waking in Australia, first light streaming through the window, or better still noticing dawn creeping over the horizon from the inside of the early morning flight over the mountains towards Botany Bay, one is immediately conscious of Australia’s prime deity.  As Kathy Lette pithily says: ‘I’m Australian, so sun worship is my only religion.’

Australia’s first world-class sculptor, Melbourne-born Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) dramatised this notion when he created Phoebus driving the Horses of the Sun in response to a 1915 commission.  He was asked to produce a work to adorn the facade of the newly-built Australia House in London’s Aldwych.  The result, eighteen tonnes and double life-size, eighteen metres wide and nearly six metres high, is one of the largest, most magnificent bronze compositions in London.  It took ten years to complete, representing Australia itself, in the form of a clear, powerful metaphor.  Yet it remains little known to Australians.

Apollo, most beautiful of the Greek gods, had many roles, but it was two of these that attracted Mackennal to use him as the embodiment of the young commonwealth: as sun-god Phoebus and as god of new countries and territories.  By representing Phoebus Apollo in his daily mission at dawn, driving his golden chariot, drawn by four fiery steeds out of the depths of the ocean into orbit across the heavens, Mackennal synthesises both aspects into one icon.


Phoebus Apollo driving the Horses of the Sun

horses of the sun

In ancient Greek literature, Phoebus Apollo (or his alter ego Helios the Titan) was a constant presence.  Homer in The Iliad offers vivid description of the horses:

The immortal coursers and the radiant car

(The silver traces sweeping at their side);

Their fiery mouths resplendent bridles tied;

The ivory-studded reins returned behind,

Waved o’er their backs, and to the chariot join’d.

The charioteer then waves his lash around…

Later in renaissance England, the poet-dramatists Shakespeare and Spenser invoke Phoebus’s energy frequently.   In the The Faerie Queen, Spenser’s ‘flaming mouthes of steedes unwonted wilde’ end their day’s journey faint, ‘watred in Ocean deepe’.

The spirit of Phoebus and his horses reappears again in the early nineteenth century, strikingly in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

A wild-eyed charioteer urging their flight,

Some look behind, as fiends pursued them there,

And yet I see no shapes but the keen stars:

Others, with burning eyes, lean forth, and drink

With eager lips the wind of their own speed.

In the studio

All this, with extraordinary audacity, Mackennal captures.  Phoebus driving the Horses of the Sun had not been a common subject for artists.  It had been created, in classical Greece, in compositions described by contemporary writers, but these have generally not survived.  An important example (that has come down to us) is from the Parthenon (c430BC), one of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.  When Mackennal first went to London at the age of eighteen, he had two major objectives – to join the Royal Academy Schools and to study the Elgin Marbles.

What he would soon have discovered there, tucked into the narrow angle of the extreme left end of the Parthenon’s east pediment, was the sun-god and his chariot rising from the waters of the ocean at the start of a new day.  It is this ingenious use of a very difficult space that must have been on Mackennal’s mind, or in his subconscious, across the three decades between first studying it and beginning to transform it into his own masterwork.  The Parthenon sun-god had been badly damaged by an explosion in 1687 of the stored armaments of the besieged Turkish garrison, a direct hit from a Venetian shell doing more damage than the whole of the previous two millennia put together.  The blast destroyed two of the four horses, damaging a third, but the remaining one is whole, with all the vibrant energy that inspired Mackennal.

He would have read about Phoebus in literature, before and after his arrival in London, not only the Greek and English writers mentioned, but also the early Australian poets who had used the sun-god to represent their young country.   In 1823, in From Australasia, WC Wentworth prays:

‘Phoebus brighter beam / Descend thou also on my native land.’

Later, Bernard O’Dowd, a follower of Walt Whitman and an early proponent of republicanism, in his sonnet Australia asks:

Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West

In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?

Or Delos of a coming Sun-God’s race?

While the question asked by O’Dowd remains open, Mackennal’s monument shares the optimistic side of the poet’s vision.

The torso of Mackennal’s Phoebus Apollo is derived from classical models, which may well have included the Strangford Apollo of c490BC (British Museum, London).  This figure comes from the brief period when the more formal, stiff, early models made the transition into the radiant Apollo that has dominated ideas of male beauty to this day.  High up on Australia House, Phoebus Apollo holds his arms outstretched in calm encouragement, a gesture previously used in the eighteenth century by William Blake in his Glad Day.  His majestic head is focused directly ahead, confident in the success of the coming day’s journey.  As in the Parthenon pediment, Mackennal’s chariot has not yet emerged from the ocean, but his horses have already half surfaced, their forelegs leaping the parapet of the Aldwych building.

In his 1931 obituary in The Times, Mackennal was described as ‘a classical realist’.  In London, his work formed part of the the “New Sculpture” movement.  From the 1880s onwards, the group also included artists such as Tom Roberts’s friend Harry Bates, William Hamo Thornycroft (whose statue of prime minister Gladstone is directly opposite Mackennal’s Phoebus outside Australia House, and who had advised Mackennal in 1883 to attend the RA Schools), and Alfred Gilbert (most successful of them all in terms of public recognition at the time).

Amongst his wide-ranging output, Mackennal produced a steady stream of work based on classical Greek themes.  In his childhood, his father, the Scottish-born sculptor JS Mackennal had created a relief based on the sad story of Apollo’s son, Phaeton driving the Chariot of the Sun.   One of Bertram’s own first works on a classical theme was Hercules (1883), produced in order to win his place at the RA Schools in London.  Then, over the years, he created amongst others Mercury and Ceres (1888) for Parliament House in Melbourne; The Lyric Muse (1888); then the work that established his reputation, the sorceress Circe (1893), followed by Oceana (1897); Tragedy enveloping Comedy (1906), in memory of the English actor Robert Brough; the (anti-war) Boer War memorial Bellona (1906), now in Canberra; and then a range of smaller pieces in the decade leading up to the first World War – Sappho and Venus amongst them.

Introducing the new Australia House sculpture in 1924, the London Daily Express described it unequivocally as ‘London’s most striking group of statuary’, going on to assert:

There will be nothing in London to compare in size with the work now completed… .  The group is valued at £12,000.

In that article, Mackennal confirms explicitly the meaning of his newly installed creation:

The work typifies the dawn or the birth of a new young country – my own.  The symbol of Phoebus and the Rising Sun will be understood by those who recall the rising sun badge of the Australian soldier during the war.

Being only double life-size may be part of the reason why Mackennal’s Phoebus has been neglected.  It is not quite big enough for a composition so high up above street level.  A better size relationship seems to be struck by the famous classical Greek horses on the medieval west front of the Basilica of St Mark in Venice.

The illustration of the Australia House group in the London newspaper was not of the bronze in situ, but of an earlier sketch model, unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1921.  This Australia House sketch was not Mackennal’s first work on this theme – he had exhibited a less dramatic plaster relief entitled Phoebus Apollo at the Royal Academy in 1919.

Perhaps more Australians will make the pilgrimage to see this great work – ideally armed with binoculars. In contrast to his struggling Australian friends and contemporaries in Europe at the time – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, GP Nerli, David Davies and others – Mackennal had become successful and widely recognised.  He was the first Australian artist to be made a Royal Academician and the first to be knighted.  It is surely time for his re-discovery by a wider public.  And a fine place to start is with Phoebus driving the Horses of the Sun in the Aldwych.

This blogpost first appeared in ‘Art & Australia’, Sydney, Winter 2003