Melbourne's earliest outdoor artworks served both decorative and utilitarian functions. Ornamental drinking fountains were positioned on street corners, and reproduction classical busts were placed along the pathways of Melbourne's substantial parks and gardens. Once the initial rush to the goldfields had subsided and the 'frontier town' designation had been cast off, ornamentation of the city was a response to Melbourne's growing sense of maturity and its resultant prosperity. The city's first piece of outdoor artwork, the two-tiered Victoria Fountain, was erected in 1859 at the intersection of Collins and Swanston streets, but it was removed shortly after because of an increase in street traffic.
Charles Summers was an early contributor to Melbourne's outdoor art. After returning from Victoria's goldfields, he gained a commission to design relief panels for Parliament House. In 1862 he went on to design Melbourne's first piece of outdoor sculpture, the classically modelled Neptune or the River God, which sat atop a rockery fountain, designed to celebrate the provision of a reticulated water supply. Summers went on to design the Burke and Wills Monument, a significant feat in its own right as Summers cast the entire work in his Collins Street studio rather than sending the work abroad. He was also influential in encouraging William Stanford to carve the 17-foot-high (5 m) Stanford Fountain while incarcerated at Pentridge Prison. Summers petitioned for Stanford's release, and the fountain was erected on the area now known as Gordon Reserve.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, memorials were the predominant form of outdoor art, and the unveiling of Melbourne's statues generated enormous public interest. The General Charles Gordon Memorial fund attracted over 1000 subscriptions, and the unveiling ceremony in 1889 was attended by thousands of people. Similarly, the unveiling of the Eight Hours' Day Monument by the fourteen surviving pioneers in 1903 was reported to have attracted approximately 2000 people, and the unveiling of the Robert Burns Memorial was said to have attracted more than 5000.
Noted philanthropists Lady Janet and Sir William Clarke both had monuments raised in their memory. The Sir William Clarke Memorial is a marble sculpture composed of two figures on a marble pedestal, topped by a bust of Clarke. The work was designed by noted sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal in 1902. The Lady Janet Clarke Memorial, a rotunda in the Queen Victoria Gardens, was designed to commemorate her service to the people of Melbourne.
The Queen Victoria Monument, which had first been suggested in 1853, was eventually designed as a memorial and unveiled in 1907. The work was reported to have nearly ruined the career of sculptor James White, who was heavily criticised for his caricature-like portrayal of the late Queen and for his use of overseas labour and materials. However, he was later given the commission for the Edmund FitzGibbon Memorial, to honour the former Melbourne City Council town clerk. After removal to various sites including Spring Street, the FitzGibbon statue was reinstalled on the south side of Princes Bridge, where he is seen to be gesturing across the river to the city he had once presided over.
The onset of World War I reduced the number of public artworks erected in the city. Many works that had been commissioned were unable to progress because of lack of available materials or labour. In 1911 sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal was commissioned to design a memorial to King Edward VII, but the work was not completed until 1920, by which time Mackennal had returned permanently to England. The Matthew Flinders Memorial was similarly delayed after first being proposed in 1911 at a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society. By 1915 a total of £750 had been raised through public subscription, and a variety of potential sites had been discussed in the Argus newspaper. The outbreak of war put an end to the immediate proposal, and it was 1922 before the project gained momentum under the management of the Melbourne City Council after the federal auditor-general received a deputation. Charles Web Gilbert was commissioned to design the sculpture, which was unveiled in November 1925, shortly after the sculptor's death.
In the 1930s a special art subcommittee was established to assist the Melbourne City Council Parks and Gardens Committee in selecting statuary, especially for the Fitzroy Gardens. This period saw two sandstone sculptures, Boy and pelican and Mermaid and fish by Melbourne sculptor William Leslie Bowles, placed in the Fitzroy Gardens on either side of the pathway facing Clarendon Street, and a bronze work, Diana and the hounds, also by Bowles, purchased and sited near the gardens' conservatory. Bowles' Diana was one of the last works to be cast in Great Britain before the commencement of World War II.
The artistic climate of Melbourne again shifted after the war. Increasingly modernism and abstractionism influenced Melbourne's outdoor artworks. When the Fitzroy Gardens were upgraded in 1956, the River God fountain was removed and replaced by Inge King's Fountain of the birds. A renewed interest in the past, fuelled by the emergence of heritage organisations such as the National Trust, resulted in a petition signed by 800 people to halt the removal of the Grey Street Fountain (c. 1863) from the Fitzroy Gardens in 1968, although it did not result in the return of other works that had been removed. It was another 30 years before the River God fountain was rescued from a council depot and returned to the gardens, albeit not to its original location.
In 1960 a memorial to Australia's first field marshal, Sir Thomas Blamey, was unveiled in Kings Domain by the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. Although Blamey's widow wanted him depicted on horseback, the commissioned sculptor, Raymond Ewers, chose to portray Blamey positioned behind a fragment of an army jeep. The Sir Thomas Blamey Memorial represented a change in the tradition of memorials and also signified the decline in outdoor monumental figurative sculpture. Ewers was responsible for the John F. Kennedy Memorial, unveiled in the Treasury Gardens in 1965, but it was an evanescent example of the city's practice of erecting bronze or marble memorials to individuals.
The 1960s and 1970s saw an increasing trend towards the erection of 'fine art' outdoor sculptures in Melbourne, and it could be argued that these pieces would have sat as easily within the confines of an art gallery as they do in outdoor settings. Baroness Yrsa von Heistner gave The phoenix to Melbourne in 1973, and John Robinson's Pathfinder was acquired by the council on long-term loan in 1974. In 1975 Robinson was commissioned to produce The water children for the Victoria Gardens.
Clement Meadmore's monumental Awakenings signified the arrival of large-scale abstract outdoor works in 1969, but it was Ron Robertson-Swann's controversial Vault, later dubbed the 'Yellow Peril', that polarised the Melbourne community in the early 1980s. The sculpture was unveiled in 1980 and was almost immediately the subject of a petition to remove it to a less obvious position. Vault has been cited as an early test of abstraction's acceptability in Melbourne, and this work seemed to challenge the public's perception of taste and beauty more than any other work.
From the 1980s onwards, contemporary sculpture has been brought to the attention of the public at large. Works such as Pamela Irving's Larry LaTrobe (1992), Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn's Three business men who brought their own lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle (1993) or Simon Perry's The public purse (1994) have been well received by the public, although they have been criticised by some as devaluing the intellectual aspect of art through their reduced social discourse. Perhaps contrasting these works are those that intentionally seek to increase the collective social conscience; an example is the Another view (1995) walking trail, which exposes an indigenous view of Melbourne's history.
As a collection, Melbourne's outdoor artworks open up a unique dialogue between place and time. While stylistic differences exist, the works establish specific reference points and provide a rich reflection of the history of Melbourne. Like written histories, outdoor artworks have the power to create a dynamic between past and present.