Barbara Tribe was one of Australia’s most significant 20th Century sculptors. During her early art school years in Sydney, she was encouraged by George Rayner Hoff to pursue further studies in sculpture. Hoff saw great talent in Barbara even nominating her to assist him with his own commissions – the most significant being the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Hoff along with eight assistants in his studio, including Tribe, were fully employed working on the Memorial between 1931 and 1934.
Simultaneously, Tribe exhibited annually with the New South Wales Society of Artists and in 1934 she exhibited one of her most accomplished sculptures, The Spirit of the Sea, to favourable reviews in the Sydney Mail. Now in the Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Spirit of the Sea 1933 draws upon the mythological with a modern sensibility. Following World War I, modernism in many ways attempted to recreate the idea of an Arcadia of Ancient Greece where refined craftsmanship, idealised form, and stylistic appropriation were sought. Barbara’s focus on the mythology of the sea in this work is understood to stem from her interest in Australian beach life. Although many other artists of the 1930s enjoyed depicting the Australian beach culture, Tribe’s eroticised forms display the influence of Rayner Hoff on her practice.
In 1935 Barbara Tribe was awarded the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship, being both the first time the scholarship had been awarded to a sculptor and the first time it had been awarded to a female. She departed Australia for London, a common rite of passage for Australian artists, and like many before her she returned only sporadically to her home country. She enrolled at London’s Royal Academy School and began studying at the City & Guilds School of Art in Kennington. Her resulting works were greatly admired by the painter and teacher Duncan Grant, specifically her pair of bronzes Lovers I and Lovers II. Whilst in London, Tribe made the most of her access to museums and galleries absorbing influences from Rodin, Brancusi, Epstein and many more. However, in 1937 Barbara’s travelling scholarship came to an end but rather than return home she made the decision to stay and persuaded Selfridges department store to enable her to sculpt customers while they waited, an hour for the sitting and seven days for delivery.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the resulting bombardment of London took its toll on Barbara’s artistic income and personal health, developing a perforated eardrum resulting in deafness in one ear. Always determined, she persevered and when a number of Australian airmen arrived in England to support the war effort she had seven of them pose for her. Several of these busts were subsequently cast in bronze and are now with the Australian War Memorial.
By the 1960s, Barbara had returned to Australia where she made invaluable contacts with local galleries that now cemented her artistic profile back home. It was in 1967 however that an invitation from a Thai friend in Cornwall led her to Bangkok. She visited Thailand on several occasions, discovering a foundry able to cast her works in bronze. Many bronzes Barbara produced in the 1970s were of Malinee, the daughter of friends in Thailand and an ideal model for Barbara.
In Barbara’s later life, she continued to exhibit throughout the 1990s, both in the UK and back home in Australia. She remains one of Australia’s most important sculptors, regardless of her gender. Her legacy includes the Barbara Tribe Foundation, established by the great John Schaeffer, her friend, benefactor and her estate’s executor. The Foundation aims to support disadvantaged young artists. John Schaeffer once commented: “There is the Archibald, the Wynne and the Sulman [prizes] and hopefully there will one day be something like the Tribe”.
Olivia Fuller | Head of Fine Art