Located high in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne lies a very special garden – the William Ricketts Sanctuary. Created by sculptor William Ricketts (1898-1993), the garden is set within virgin forest and features a vast collection of Ricketts’ clay sculptures.
I had not been to the Sanctuary before but had seen many photos of Ricketts’ famous works in magazines and online.
The drive up to the gardens was windy but not arduous and there was plenty of parking space upon arrival. Entry was via a series of relatively steep ramps leading to a modest reception hall.
Once into the garden, I was greeted by two giant Aboriginal Elders who emerged from giant boulders at the entrance.
Mandating that one passes between them, this pair remind the visitor of the sanctity of the property as well as to provide a welcome. The sculptures encourage an exploration of the gardens whilst reminding all of the important mission in Ricketts’ work and promoting a respect for the land.
Once through the entrance a series of paths meander through the garden, providing access to numerous sculptures. Do pay particular attention when walking along those paths however, because it is easy to miss some of the smaller sculptures that might be partially hidden!
Two large portals guard the entrance to William Ricketts Sanctuary.
Most of Ricketts’ clay works are of Aboriginal people – particularly their faces and hands – intertwined with vegetation and small Australian marsupials such as possums and kangaroos. The works are made of kiln-fired clay and in many cases have been attached to large boulders or stones located on-site. Over time, the moist and cool environment has allowed the sculptures to weather, thus facilitating their integration within the surrounding bush.
An aboriginal girl in profile.
Ricketts wanted to express his respect for Aboriginal culture and foster a love of the Australian landscape with visitors via his artworks. Through his artworks, he constantly reminds us of the special relationship that the Aborigines had to the landscape prior to White Settlement and the destruction that was wrought upon them subsequently.
Within the William Ricketts Sanctuary lies Ricketts’ house, as well as his former studios. A video is exhibited in the house which explains Ricketts’ philosophy as well as to document the process by which he created his works. We learn that he moved to Mount Dandenong in the 1930′s when he purchased the 1.6 hectare block that he Christened “Potters’ Sanctuary”.
One of the many sculptures that adorn William Ricketts Sanctuary.
Word soon spread about the extraordinary sculptures that adorned the Sanctuary and in the 1960′s the State Government of Victoria purchased the land and adjoining blocks for the purposes of creating a public reserve. Ricketts continued to live and work on the property until his death in 1993.
Ricketts had undeniable skill in accurately recreating Aboriginal faces in clay.
What I most like about William Ricketts’ work is the technical accuracy of his sculptues. His ability to accurately recreate the faces of Australian Aboriginals both young and old is truly amazing. Their poise, their expression and their emotion is conveyed wonderfully. However, it is the way that Ricketts integrated these figures with Australian animals (also beautifully recreated) and the surrounding stonework that make his works unique.
There is a message in Ricketts’ work – to respect the Aboriginal people and their culture. But most importantly, to love and cherish the Australian landscape – our Australian landscape. Ricketts believed that we – the people, the trees, the animals – were all one enormous organism created by God. And therefore we should express our love of God by caring for each other and our landscape. For Ricketts there was an obvious harmony between our Christian faith and the traditional beliefs of the Aborigines.
Visitors admiring the sculptures and bushland setting at William Ricketts Sanctuary.
Ricketts not only argued that Australia’s progress lay in the preservation of our wild environments, but he saw himself as a defender of the aboriginal people. He believed he was enlightened and therefore had to lead the rest of Australian society down the same philosophical path.
Indeed, this is reflected in some of his sculptures where Ricketts is seen in a Christ-like pose on the crucifix beside two Aboriginal elders. According to Langton and David, Ricketts deluded himself into believing he was such a threat to the authorities (like Christ) that he was a potential assassination target for opponents. Of course this delusion was never realised.
The Churinga Café
Whatever one’s personal reactions to Ricketts’ philisophy or religious views or even his personal paranoia, his works stand out as being unique. His property is a place of quiet reflection and serenity; a uniquely Australian garden of unrivalled tranquillity.
The layout of the William Ricketts Sanctuary, with its winding paths and unique sculptures make for a really nice outing. A good tour of the garden takes approximately two to three hours which allows much time to read the small inscriptions on many of the works. Afterwards, there’s the Churinga Café (former Churinga Tea Rooms) just over the road that can offer a nice lunch or cup of coffee.
William Ricketts Sanctuary is located on Mount Dandenong Tourist Road in Mount Dandenong. Entry costs $6.20 for adults and is open from 10am until 4:30pm daily.
M. Langton and B. David (2003) William Ricketts Sanctuary, Victoria (Australia): Sculpting Nature and Culture in a Primitivist Theme Park. Journal of Material Culture 8: 145-168