• We Won - statue in Centennial Park History and Heritage

    How Sir Henry Parkes ‘flipped the bird’ at his opponents!

 

Hiding in plain sight in Centennial Park is a unique public sculpture with an intriguing backstory. This is a new theory of the true meaning of We won!

The statue ‘We Won!‘, by Italian-born artist Tomaso Sani, is a bronze figure of a young rugby footballer, mounted on a column decorated with four allegorical bas-relief panels showing a game in progress.

Recent research by Professor Chris McAuliffe, of the School of Art, Australian National University suggests that We won! may be the first large-scale sculpture of a football player erected anywhere in the world.

“I found a couple of earlier examples in England and the US,” says McAuliffe, “But they’re domestic ornaments. We won! is a major work, unveiled in a prominent public park.”

 

The We Won! statue is possibly the first large-scale sculpture of a football player in the world.

The We Won! statue is possibly the first large-scale sculpture of a football player in the world.

 

Just as surprising is the fact that the sculpture was commissioned by then-Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes, who was no fan of football.

“Parkes was an avid art collector and used his political position to support artists,” says McAuliffe. “He had remarkable art world connections. He gave the English Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner, an exhibition in the offices of his newspaper in 1854 and later saw to it that he got the commission for the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park. Whether it was commissioning, committee work or unveiling ceremonies, Parkes probably had a hand in half the public sculptures installed in Sydney in his day. None of our current or recent politicians can match him for hands-on art involvement.”

We won! was commissioned by Parkes in 1891 for Centennial Park, which he had initiated to celebrate the 1888 centenary of European settlement.

“Typical of his time, Parkes believed that sculpture offered moral and civic inspiration to the public,” says McAuliffe, “but he thought sport was a distraction from the business of national building. So why did he commission a statue of a rugby player?”

 

We Won by Tomaso Sani

We Won by Tomaso Sani

 

The key, McAuliffe believes, is Parkes’ friendship with Thomas Hughes, the English author of the classic footballing yarn Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Hughes was also skeptical of athleticism and, contrary to myth, was a critic of “muscular Christianity”. Hughes urged the pursuit of “the truest manhood” not “brute force” but “simple integrity”—“honesty, truthfulness, and uprightness”.

“Parkes saw his life as one long struggle,” says McAuliffe. “He rose from poverty, suffered political and business failures, and fought all the way. I think We won! is a secret monument to his own political victories.”

“Parkes actually took time out from the 1891 Federation conference to visit Sani’s studio to view the sculpture – he must have seen the two things as connected.

When the sculpture was completed in 1893, Centennial Park was established and Parkes’ plans for federation were in train; he could look his opponents in the eye and say ‘I won’. It’s an ambitious, classy sculpture but I think Parkes used it to flip the bird at the nay-sayers.”

We won! is a conventional sculpture by today’s standards but Tomaso Sani was a figure of controversy in the nineteenth century. His realistic style and preference for modern-day subject likes football were attacked by Parkes’ political opponents, art critics and the general public. One letter-writer even referred to the Centennial Park rugby player as a ‘freak’”!

Our thanks to Professor Chris McAuliffe for making his insights available to us.

 

Download our History Walk app

 

Similar Articles

  • Sydney history unearthed: five ‘must-see’ heritage landmarks in the Parklands

    Visitors to Centennial Parklands are easily impressed by its surface beauty, filled with green vistas and water features teeming with native and exotic wildlife. Scratch beneath the surface though, and you will find a whole new layer of historical significance to explore. You might be surprised to learn that Centennial Parklands is in fact, rich […]

  • An ‘entertaining’ Parklands

    Over the years, Centennial Parklands has been home to some of the most spectacular events in Sydney’s short history. From hosting the ceremony to celebrate Federation in 1901, to some of the most nail biting sporting events (such as at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games), the Parklands has been home to some wonderful celebrations. Over […]

  • Celebrating NAIDOC Week, from important sites to precious plants

    The land on which Centennial Parklands is constructed does have a rich Aboriginal cultural heritage, so for this NAIDOC Week (2-9 July 2017), we are taking some time to acknowledge the site’s traditional custodians. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee and with ‘NAIDOC Week’ week, members of all kinds of Australian communities are encouraged to come together to celebrate Aboriginal […]

  • What do the new $5 note and Centennial Park share in common?

    On the 1 September 2016, last year, the Reserve Bank of Australia unveiled an exciting new look $5 note.  Like most, we were hugely impressed with the tactile features to make the note more accessible for blind and vision-impaired people. We also couldn’t help but be a little excited to learn that there is a distinctive link between […]