Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor

Art + Book Extracts


English sculptor Rayner Hoff moved to Sydney in 1923 and quickly became a major player in the Australian art scene. Historian Deborah Beck traces his career trajectory in her book, Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor.

Hoff is perhaps best known for his work on the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. The memorial is currently being refurbished as apart of the multi-million dollar Centenary Project which marks the 100th anniversary of WWI.

The extract below, reprinted with permission from Chapter 14: Burning the Candle, details how Hoff won the Anzac Memorial commission. 

The Anzac Memorial

When a war memorial for Sydney was suggested during the Great War, a public meeting to appeal for funds was held in the Domain on 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli. This appeal called for a place of rest and recreation for all returned soldiers, sailors and nurses. (1) Many sites were suggested throughout Sydney, with one of the proposals being the site of Darlinghurst Gaol, which was empty at the time, with plans to demolish it to make way for a new high school. A letter in the Sydney City Council Archives from the Town Clerk to Lord Mayor Richard Meagher, dated December 1916, refers to a request by the Council that no action be taken on the utilisation of the site for a high school, but that ‘The subject area should be made available as a public park in which a memorial should be erected in commemoration of the Australian soldiers at Anzac.’ (2)

The Minister for Education rejected this proposal, saying he would not abandon his plans for a high school on the site, and suggested the vacant land in front of the courthouse at Darlinghurst be used for the memorial. In the end, the buildings were saved from demolition when it was decided to use the site as a military detention camp instead of building the new high school. While Hoff was serving in the war, the fate of the two buildings that would shape his life in Australia were decided in these few meetings in 1916.

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John Moorfield, Treasure Conlon, Eileen McGrath and Arthur Buist (left to right), 1932. Courtesy McGrath family.

Fundraising for the Memorial continued throughout the war, but it took until the year that Hoff arrived in Australia, 1923, for the NSW Parliament to pass the Anzac Memorial Act that consolidated all the funds in order to build a memorial. At the time the people of Sydney were suffering from the devastating effects of the war. Many had returned mentally scarred or wounded, and in New South Wales 21,000 out of the 120,000 who had enlisted had died. A memorial as a place of remembrance, built to honour the lives that were lost, became a pressing need for the public, the Anzac Fellowship of Women, the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) and the NSW Parliament.

The fundraising appeal had taken years of public subscriptions to accumulate enough to build the Memorial. By Anzac Day 1928, Fred Davison, state president of the RSSILA, finally announced that a ‘shrine of remembrance’ would be erected at the southern end of Hyde Park. The park was redesigned at this time as a series of radial avenues, with a war memorial at each end of the axis. The Anzac Memorial would be built to complement the Archibald Fountain at the northern end of the park. The fountain was completed in 1932 to commemorate the association of Australia and France in the Great War. (3)

An architectural competition to design a memorial costing no more than £75,000 was announced in June 1929. There were 117 entries exhibited at the new gallery in Farmers department store, Blaxland Galleries. Judged by Professor Leslie Wilkinson, Alfred Hook and EJ Payne, the commission was awarded to the 29-year-old Sydney modernist architect C Bruce Dellit in July 1930. Dellit studied at Sydney Technical College and had attended Wilkinson’s lectures at the University of Sydney. Breaking from his conservative architectural education, Dellit pioneered the Art Deco style in Australia and his proposal included a striking, 40-metre-high ‘stepped’ silhouette, with allegorical sculptures on the interior and exterior of the building.

With Sydney deep in the throes of the Depression, this prized commission had been keenly contested by some of Hoff’s colleagues. Second place was awarded to John D Moore and Hoff’s former student Arthur Murch. Another design was submitted by Raymond McGrath (Eileen McGrath’s brother), along with George Lambert’s son, Maurice Lambert. (4)

Dellit was considering sculptors for the Memorial before he received the commission. He knew of Brisbane-born sculptor Daphne Mayo’s work as he had spent time in Brisbane as chief draughtsman for Hall and Prentice on the City Hall drawings. He corresponded with her regarding the memorial throughout 1930. Daphne Mayo was a year younger than Hoff and was regarded as Australia’s leading woman sculptor. She had studied at Brisbane’s Central Technical College and travelled to London in 1919, where she enrolled briefly at the Royal College of Art, possibly at the same time that Hoff was there. Her principal studies in London were at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she gained a travelling scholarship to Italy in December 1923. She returned to a warm reception in Brisbane in 1925, and by 1930 she was working on the Queensland Women’s War Memorial and the Brisbane City Hall tympanum.

Dellit had never met Mayo, but he wrote her a confidential letter in March 1930, saying he was a finalist in the competition and asked if she would be interested in quoting for the sculptures for the Memorial. His choice of Mayo is an interesting one, although he does explain it in his letter to her, ‘Your work is well known to me … naturally I would very greatly prefer, if the work comes my way, to place the sculptural work with an Australian.’(5)

Although Hoff was fully immersed in Australian culture by 1930, Dellit may have still considered him to be a British sculptor. Neither Rayner nor Annis became naturalised citizens. (6) In April Dellit sent Daphne Mayo drawings and detailed descriptions of the sculptures, and asked her to make a model that he could submit with his proposal. The letters sent to Mayo had become insistent by 4 June:

As time is drawing near for the sending in of my design for the Anzac Memorial Competition, I will be obliged if you will kindly let me have your quotation for the Statuary groups provided for in my design and as indicated in the sketches which I forwarded to you previously, as early as possible. (7)

He once again outlined the sculptures needed, and described the central internal group with the name Sacrifice as being in Carrara marble. This is a significant note, as it shows that it was Dellit who chose the name for the now iconic work in the Memorial, not Hoff. Marble eventually proved to be too expensive, and the decision to have it cast in bronze was made in 1932.

Dellit’s next letter to Mayo is on 30 July, after he won the competition. Mayo had by now quoted on the sculptures, and at this point he asked her to come to Sydney. In August and early September, they were discussing the sculpture in detail, and Mayo asked if Hoff’s former student Arthur Murch would be available to work with her. Here the correspondence between them ends. On 29 October Mayo wrote to the Anzac War Memorial Committee saying she could not make the sketch model they had asked her for because of her already massive workload. (8) It must have been hard for her to make this decision, as Mayo was aware of the prestige of the commission. Practically, though, it would have been difficult as she lived in Brisbane and had other commissioned works to finalise, and she would have had to find a studio big enough to complete the works in Sydney.

In this respect, Hoff became an obvious choice. By 1930 he had established himself as one of the most conspicuous figures of the Australian art world. Dellit was aware of his work, and later developed more architectural projects with Hoff, many of which also had a strong sculptural presence. Hoff also had a studio in close proximity to the Memorial, and had trained students and staff to assist him. Many already had the experience of making the large-scale memorial in Adelaide. The Trustees of the Memorial had also been using Hoff as an advisor regarding the possibility of casting the Memorial sculptures in bronze in Australia, and met in his studio on 19 September 1930. He suggested that as well as the cost of importing materials, the sculptures should be sent to England, as there were no ‘artistically trained craftsmen’ in Sydney who could complete such large works. (9)

The Trustees had asked Hoff and Daphne Mayo to submit models for the central group, and at one stage it looked like they might collaborate on the project, with Hoff making the bulk of the sculptures, and Mayo making the central group. (10) By the time Mayo wrote to say she could not complete the scale model for the central group, Hoff had made a half-size sketch model, and had presented his proposal to the Trustees on 28 August. The Trustees agreed to commission him on 25 September 1930, but it took over a year before he had a formal contract.

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Visiting the Anzac Memorial: (left to right) Barbara Tribe, Bruce Dellit, Rayner Hoff, John Moorfield and Otto Steen, c1932. Courtesy McGrath family.

The work he carried out for the Memorial provided Hoff with the opportunity of a lifetime, occupying him almost full-time for over three years. He and Dellit had quickly established a congenial relationship, and although Dellit had chosen the positions of the sculptures in his original design, he was open to Hoff’s suggestions to change them. As Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, Professor Virginia Spate explained:

Dellit had planned that the four standing figures and the sixteen seated figures on the buttresses should represent the traditional allegories of the ‘Four Seasons’ and the ‘Arts of Peace and War’ respectively. Hoff replaced allegory with depictions of typical figures from the four services, the Army, Navy, Air force and the Army Medical Corps. (11)

Hoff’s sculptures were expressions of his personal vitalist beliefs, (12) and he chose to use a synthesis of classicised figures and images of modern Anzacs. The stylised external sculptures are unmistakably Australian men and women in modern military attire, and the reliefs depict soldiers in battle and working behind the lines, emblematic of the hardy Australian soldiers who had served in the Great War. The figures effortlessly combine both the classic tradition and Hoff’s own interpretation of the Art Deco movement’s reduction of unnecessary detail. Overall there were 20 enormous single figures that needed to be made for the exterior, two monumental bronze groups, and two 10-metre-long bronze reliefs. The interior included marble reliefs representing the ‘March of the Dead’ and the central bronze group, Sacrifice.

Hoff started the drawings for the reliefs as soon as he received the commission, and by October 1930 he had sent them to Charles Bean at Victoria Barracks in Sydney for comments on their authenticity. He could not have had better advice. Author CEW Bean had been the official war correspondent at Gallipoli and in France during the Great War, and was at the time writing the first two volumes of the official history of Australia in the First World War. Bean had also collected war time photographs, and Hoff wrote to him to ask if he could borrow some for reference. Bean wrote to Hoff on 13 October, ‘I have found practically all the photographs on your list. These are classified according to your index, and total 206.’

These invaluable photographs consisted of images of pilots, nurses, stretcher-bearers, gas masks, the landing at Gallipoli, trench mortars, and of dead horses and men.

Bean supplied them to Hoff and asked for their return at a later date. He then went on to correct the information Hoff had supplied in the drawings of the reliefs:

With regard to the figures included in your frieze, the A.I.F. had no tanks, although we were often associated with them. We also had no armoured cars of the pattern shown. The cars that did such great work in Palestine were just rickety old-pattern Fords with Lewis guns mounted as shown in the photograph. They really were rather splendid and worked well out ahead with the foremost light horse patrols. (13)

Hoff had served with the British Army and so was, of course, unfamiliar with all the Australian details. He replied to Bean three days later, expressing his enormous gratitude for the photos and suggestions. He was well aware of how important it was to correctly depict the people who had served. As well as this reference material, Hoff borrowed items from the War Museum and equipment from the Defence Department. (14)

The Anzac Memorial sculptures are the culmination of Hoff’s considerable skills in drawing and sculpture, and a fine example of the successful working relationship between Hoff and his students. Fully cognisant of the significance of his work, Hoff planned ahead to photograph the sculptures as they were being made, and wrote to Harold Cazneaux on 20 October 1930 to ask him to photograph the work in progress at various times. By this date he was able to list all 37 sculptures he was planning to make, including their measurements. (15)

In November 1931, tenders were called for the building of the Memorial, and the contractors employed were Messrs Kell & Rigby. By May 1932 Hoff had submitted his casts for the sculptures to the Trustees and they were all approved, including the external groups. (16)

Hoff’s studio at the NAS was the ideal site for the construction of the external sculptures, although it had to be massively enlarged to cope with the commission. It was elongated and the roof was raised in 1930. With a substantial stipend provided to complete the work, Hoff was able to pay his students during the Depression and employ other staff members to work   on the Memorial sculptures. The assistants he employed included Eileen McGrath, Otto Steen, Treasure Conlon, John Moorfield, Arthur Buist, Tom Robertson, Bill Lanigan and Barbara Tribe.

Rayner Hoff: The Life of a Sculptor is available for purchase in all good bookstores, and online from New South Books.


1. Virginia Spate, ‘If These Dead Stones Could Speak: Rayner Hoff’s sculptures and the Anzac Memorial’ in Deborah Edwards, This Vital Flesh: The sculpture of Rayner Hoff and his school, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999, pp. 53–54.

2. Town Clerk, correspondence files, Sydney City Council Archives, 11 December 1916, Item No. 1408/16.

3. John Ramsland and Christopher Mooney, ‘Apollo Must Contemplate a World of which He Has Never Dreamed’, paper for the Independent Scholars Association of Australia Inc., 2008 conference, ‘The National Estate Civic Heritage’.

4. Between 1918 and 1923, Maurice Lambert was apprenticed to Hoff’s teacher, sculptor Derwent Wood, so it is likely that he knew Hoff in London during this period.

5. C Bruce Dellit letter to Daphne Mayo, 4 March 1930, Daphne Mayo papers, Fryer Library, University of Queensland, UQFL119.

6. A search of the National Archives of Australia on 8 September 2014 did not locate Annis or Rayner Hoff in the index of people who became naturalised Australian citizens between 1904 and 1994.

7. Dellit letter to Mayo, 4 June 1930, Daphne Mayo papers.

8. Daphne Mayo letter to the Secretary, Anzac War Memorial Committee, 29 October 1930, Daphne Mayo papers.

9. Minutes of meeting of Trustees of the Anzac Memorial Building, 19 September 1930.

10. Minutes of Meeting of Sub-Committee appointed by Trustees of the Anzac Memorial Building, 10 September 1930.

11. Spate, ‘If These Dead Stones Could Speak’, p. 57.

12. The proponents of vitalism ‘argued that life was more than a set of material forces: that it was animated by a non-rational “life energy” residing in the body’, Edwards, This Vital Flesh, p. 11.

13. CEW Bean letter to Rayner Hoff, 13 October 1930, Australian War Memorial Archives, AWM file 419/8/1.

14. ‘Anzac Memorial – Work of Distinction – Mr Rayner Hoff’s sculptures’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1932.

15. Rayner Hoff letter to Harold Cazneaux, 20 October 1930, Rayner Hoff, Artists’ file, National Library of Australia.

16. S Elliott Napier (ed.), The Book of the Anzac Memorial, Beacon Press, 1934, p. 44.

Book Extract