Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain

Things I like about Sydney No. 8: The Botanic Gardens Pt. 2

There are some things I see that I covet and want to own - things in the realm of affordable possibility like nineteenth-century photographs of men with moustaches, moomin mugs, or cases of taxidermy. There are other things I see which I covet even more but which I understand I will never own: a Leger painting for instance, or a tiger skin, or a triple-decker Thomas Hardy first edition, or Truman Capote's address book. Then there is a third category of things which I long to own but even with money I know it would be impossible: the autograph score of The Rite of Spring, all of Leighton House, and the entire Natural History Museum in Tring are all good instances. Finally, in my terribly covetous world, there are things which are so brilliant that owning them wouldn't be enough: I simply want to be them.

The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain falls into this category: I want to give up this Jonathan Cooper lark and become it.

Turn right out of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, walk across the motorway (using the pedestrian bridge obviously) and into the Botanic Gardens and you will shortly reach the Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain. It was erected in 1889 in memory of Lewis Wolfe Levy, a distinguished Jewish philanthropist and businessman who, despite the disadvantage of being an astute politician, spent more time helping others than helping himself, serving on the boards of hospitals, blind institutions and synagogues. He died of thrombosis in 1885 having accumulated both a lot of land and a lot of money (and a lot of children - thirteen in all, a veritable football team).

The drinking fountain itself is described by the Sydney Historical Society as 'a beautiful structure of polished red and white granite, surmounted by a charming bronze female figure by Birch' (supposedly Diana). Charles Bell Birch was an English sculptor responsible for the griffin at Temple Bar in the Strand in London: something that belongs to my 'I would like to have it but even with money it would be impossible' category. Birch won a prize whilst at art school in a competition for a Wood Nymph which is rather sweet. I think competitions for best Wood Nymph should be reinstated at all art schools immediately. Not that it did Birch any good as he died a virtual pauper. (His Wood Nymph is rather peculiar: two deer are in the nymph's arms, one suckling a finger the other a breast. Breasts were obviously of healthy interest as you will see from the Levy Fountain.)

Enough of Mr. Birch. Back to the fountain itself. Apart from being sinuous, decorative and beautiful it is actually of use - the largest remaining public water fountain in Sydney. It is a miracle that in the age of public health and safety people are still allowed to drink from the four corner drinking fountains.  The beakers that used to be left perching over the taps in the late nineteenth century and which can be seen in a photo on the sign next the fountain are no longer, naturally, extant. I might replace them myself one day...

Whilst I sat there looking at the fountain the other day on a nearby bench, a butterfly perched on the arm-rest beside me, waiting for my parents to complete their trawl of the Art Gallery in search of John Glover paintings, I watched a stream of people pause in their tracks upon coming across Diana and her attendant lions, frogs and heron. Almost all of them reached for their cameras and got their companions to pose with Birch's nude. Almost all of them supped at her waters. The fountain's powers are undiminished after over a hundred years, the polished lines of red and white marble which were carved far away in Cornwall still lead our eyes up, around and over this magnificent object.

Here it is. The Lewis Wolfe Levy Drinking Fountain. Something that I would like to be.

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