Nestled on top of Mount Dandenong is a spectacular artistic legacy; the life’s work of a self-taught, eccentric local sculptor and spiritualist. This is the William Ricketts Sanctuary.
William Ricketts was not obviously destined for an artistic life.
Born in 1898 in industrial Richmond, in inner Melbourne, his early years were grounded in gritty reality. His father was an ironmonger, and he was the youngest of five siblings, in a household where money was tight.
Ricketts attended secondary school in Thornbury but was a lacklustre student, and frequently played truant.
After graduating he lived a directionless few years, working menial jobs for local industries. Significantly, one of these was for the Australian Porcelain Company, where he helped manufacture homewares and learned the principles of basic design.
Ricketts subsequently began to take an interest in the arts.
In his twenties he met Gustav Pillig, a German artist who had emigrated to Australia. Pillig was best known for his sculptures; striking, stylised depictions of men and women, usually nude, often in unusual, dramatic poses.
Pillig was also a dedicated naturalist, and produced a series of landscape paintings, showcasing the regions around Melbourne.
It was Pillig who introduced Ricketts to the writings of Baldwin Spencer.
Baldwin Spencer was a British born anthropologist, who had become obsessed with Australia’s Indigenous culture.
Spencer had first come to Melbourne in 1887, where he was employed as a Professor of Biology by Melbourne University. In 1894, wanting to see more of the country he now lived in, he joined a scientific expedition from Adelaide, that was to explore the outback.
Covering 2 000 kilometres in three months, the party roamed the desert around Alice Springs, encountering several local tribes. It was a fateful trip for Spencer, who was struck by both the people and the country.
He would return to the outback again and again in the ensuing three decades, and produce some of the first serious western writing about traditional Indigenous culture.
Pillig gifted Ricketts a book written by Baldwin, called ‘Arunta: A Study of Stone Age People’. Ricketts read it voraciously, and quickly became obsessed with Indigenous culture himself.
He also set out to establish himself as an artist.
In the early 1930s he began to sculpt, creating ceramic works that reflected his interests and influences. Many of them took an Indigenous theme, or depicted Indigenous people, others were concerned with the natural world, and the damage done to it by modern society.
His works received a mixed response. They were judged to be passionate, and imaginative, but also lacking in skill and subtlety.
But Ricketts was able to generate enough income from his works to purchase a large property on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tract of native forest, on Mt Dandenong, near Olinda, was intended as an artist’s retreat, and hideaway.
Ricketts moved there to live in 1935 and was joined by his mother two years later.
They lived in a primitive wooden shack and tried to subsist as self-sufficiently as possible, growing their own food and using water from a diverted stream. Ricketts augmented this basic lifestyle with income from his art shows.
He exhibited a dozen more times in the next ten years. And while the critical response to his works never advanced beyond mediocre, he was still able to develop a following.
His interest in Indigenous culture, and use of their iconography in his works, brought him to the attention of Melbourne’s Indigenous community.
Several local Indigenous leaders, including well-regarded figures like Sir Douglas Nicholls, were among Ricketts supporters, and helped introduce and promote his shows.
The rest of the time, Ricketts worked in his mountain retreat, sculpting, and carving rambling pathways through the native forest. He decorated these will more works of his own, creating a kind of natural, outdoor gallery.
By 1949, Ricketts was secure enough financially that he could finally indulge a lifelong passion; he began to travel to the outback, to experience first hand the Indigenous culture he had read about.
He spent several months with the Arrente and Pitjantjatjara tribes in Central Australia, living a simple life in the desert.
He brought sculptures with him to present to local artists, and tried to incorporate Indigenous ideas and artistic traditions into new pieces. He also set up a gallery at Pitchi Richi, outside of Alice Springs, which remains to this day.
Ricketts viewed his new works as having a spiritual significance and described them as ‘totemistic’. He would continue to visit the outback regularly, through the 1950s and 60s.
In 1961, Ricketts agreed to sell his Mt Dandenong property to the Victorian Government.
The deal would preserve the ‘Sanctuary’ as a public park after his death, while the government also agreed to build Ricketts a modern house, studio and kiln.
He would live there for the rest of his life. While officially known as the William Ricketts Sanctuary, the artist himself had a different name for the property; ‘The Forest of Love’:
‘I use clay. It opened up my love for the country, the earth, the clay, the wild life. I am part of that … I am trying to share what the Aboriginal gave me. It is not the William Ricketts Sanctuary, it is the forest of love.’
- William Ricketts
The William Ricketts Sanctuary is a popular spot for weekend visitors up Olinda way.
I visited this week and it is a lot of fun; quirky, passionate, and popular with kids, who ducked among the exotic statues, playing some kind of secret agent game as they ran up and down the winding stone paths.
A fitting legacy, for a committed individual, who followed his own unique path.