Roman Archaeology Group

Perth, Western Australia

The lion-griffin frieze on the Winthrop Hall

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For a teacher, there can be few things more pleasant than the times when instead of merely absorbing and regurgitating information with varying degrees of accuracy, a keen student will draw attention to something that has not been officially a part of the syllabus, and may even be something that the teacher didn’t know.

This has recently been my experience. When I wrote the book The Hackett Memorial Buildings at The University of Western Australia (published at the end of 2012), I discussed briefly the question of the frieze that runs around the top of the outside of the Hall in these words:

Around the top of the walls a frieze runs. It shows facing pairs of winged lions against a blue background (they are sometimes called griffins or gryphons, but this is not correct, because griffins have the heads of eagles).

Among the papers associated with Alsop that are held in the archives of the University is a photograph of part of a frieze created by the Melbourne firm of Wunderlich (which was merged in 1938 with the Perth firm of Brisbane to form Brisbane and Wunderlich), showing a griffin with a candelabrum on each side of it. Alsop wrote on the back of this photograph that this work was for the Hackett Buildings, but it seems that in the end he decided to create something a little different.

Some sculptures recovered at Persepolis, one of the residences of the ancient kings of Persia, by archaeologists in the 20th century, have been suggested as an inspiration for this frieze, but the figures of winged lions that protected the palace there stand with their forelegs straight, and have heads with long beards of human form, unlike those in the frieze around the Hall, which are more like the lion of St Mark the Evangelist. This lion became the symbol of Venice in the Middle Ages, and is still to be seen, not only in Venice itself, but in other places that came under the control of that great maritime city. These facing pairs of lions, standing with one paw raised in the attitude that in heraldry is called passant (or in Italian andante) because they seem to be moving, are separated by representations of an ancient Greek musical instrument, the lyre (or more properly, a form of lyre called the kithara).

It is probable that Alsop’s design was inspired by more than one earlier work, like so much of the building. He left no clue in his writings to explain this frieze, except to allude to a ‘Greek’ influence. Lions have often been used as symbols of protection; the significance of the kithara is uncertain, but in ancient art it was a symbol or attribute of Apollo, whose portfolio included poetry and music, so its inclusion may be for more than purely decorative reasons.

The book was published, and soon afterwards I was contacted by Peter Bryant, who had studied Greek and Roman Architecture with me some thirty years before. He told me that he thought that the lion and kithara frieze might have been inspired by a frieze surviving on an ancient Greek temple at a religious sanctuary at Didyma near Ephesus in what is now Turkey, and that Alsop might have seen an illustration of this in a book of architectural drawings published by someone called Buhlmann. He could not explain how he knew about this book, and when I offered to place him under hypnosis to see if he could recover the memory, he declined.

I then investigated this publication. The book in question, entitled Die Architektur des Klassischen Altertums und der Renaissance, a large folio work, was published by Josef Buhlmann in Stuttgart in 1872, and was republished in several editions, the last in 1913. It contained drawings of details of hundreds of ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance buildings, and on Plate 21 the design that appears below may be seen.Untitled2

Buhlmann’s book was not designed for archaeologists but for practising architects, so there can be no doubt that this is the design that Alsop instructed the Melbourne firm of Wunderlich to copy for the frieze of the Winthrop Hall.

– This article was kindly submitted by Emeritus Professor John Melville-Jones.

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One comment on “The lion-griffin frieze on the Winthrop Hall

  1. Robyn Taylor
    December 15, 2014

    Many thanks for sharing this information. I find it fascinating.
    Another source for Alsop could be Banister Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method’ that was also designed for architects. Margaret Pitt Morison (architectural historian at UWA) once told me it was the ‘bible’ for architects studying architectural history. There is an illustration in the 1938 (10th) edition of the book of winged lions with a raised paw very much like the example above and what appears on Winthrop Hall. The illustration I looked at and others in the book are similar to details Alsop used for the Hackett Memorial Buildings. The Banister Fletcher book was first published in the 19th century.

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