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.”
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?”
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.