The garden, midway between the rear of the Government House and the Parade Grounds, was to commemorate the role South Australian women played in the development of the State. The fact that their contribution was considered at all shows the changing attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s to the importance of women in the community. It is well accepted that the mobilisation of women into the workforce during the war had a profound effect on women’s expectations and their dissatisfaction with their historical role. The garden and its contents were the work of women ¬¬– i.e. the landscape design, sculpture and the fundraising committee. This statue therefore represents the changing role of women in South Australia as well as the commemoration of their forebears.
The Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust of South Australia began the move to create a “garden of memory” in May 1938, approaching Council for permission to lay out a garden on the flat land behind Government House. The Trust had planned to create a formal garden with a centrally placed sundial and figure, the sundial to denote the passing of time. The garden was planned to measure 120 feet by 80 feet, and was to be surrounded by a dwarf brick wall with a centrally placed brick pathway and three steps leading to the sundial. The plan was prepared by Elsie Cornish, an Adelaide-based garden designer. During 1939 the location was slightly altered and some changes were made to the garden design.
The statue depicting a pioneer woman was the work of the sculptor Olna Cohn. It is 7 feet high and stands on a stepped pedestal. Cohn (1892-1964) was a Melbourne based artist who trained at the Bendigo School of Mines and at the Swinburne Technical College. She attended the Royal College of Art in London from 1926 to 1930. She studied sculpture under Henry Moore and travelled extensively throughout Europe before returning to Melbourne in 1931. Her commissions included figures, a drinking fountain, panels for a building in Sydney, a church font and wood carvings of figures.
In October 1938, the Secretary of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust of South Australia. asked Cohn to submit a design for a memorial dedicated to the courage and strength of the early pioneer women. “I suggested … that they trusted me to carve the monument direct, or freehand, without any copy other than the crude seven-inch sketch I had just completed,” the artist recorded. “Being a pioneer memorial, I argued it would be well to allow me to carve it in a pioneer manner … The Committee agreed, but first they would like to see a model of the head and shoulders so that they could approve of the expression. I consented to do this. With the crude little sketch I flew back to Melbourne.”
Cohn worked on the statue for 18 months. She was mid-career and it was the first of her work to be seen in Adelaide. She said of the statue: “The figure does not date, yesterday, today or tomorrow … I have draped her simply so that she belongs in period to all time. I have shown firmness, and strength and the solid stance as on one belonging to the earth. Its as if she had come to stay, to go ahead through many years.”
Artist Noel Hutchinson said that Cohn’s exhibition in 1931 was a significant event in the introduction of Modernism to Australia. She was for a time the most advanced sculptor working in Australia, and considered the statue to be one of her major commissions. Hutchinson continued: “After the middle-forties Olna Cohn’s work became insignificant in the rising tide of modernism, and by the time of her death she had lost her initiative and was using a tepid form of realism. Her misfortune was that she lacked the intellectual robustness to continue evolving her style.”
The statue was unveiled by Lady Muriel Barclay-Harvey on April 19, 1941, in a ceremony that also marked the opening of the Flying Doctor base in Alice Springs. South Australian women donated £5000 towards the opening of the building for the Flying Doctor Service in Alice Springs. This opening the building and unveiling of a plaque were broadcast to a large crowd in Adelaide.
Contained within a crypt of the statue in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is a book containing the names of the 20,000 women who donated money towards the statue. The records of the women’s part in the Centenary Celebrations of 1936 were also enclosed, as was a letter addressed to the women of the state to be opened in 2036. The letter concludes “May your days be days of international peace at last.”
The garden was accepted by the Lord Mayor to be maintained for the people by the Council.
It seems that the sculpture created some controversy before its formal opening. It was a strikingly modern and abstracted design for a conservative Adelaide. The city’s public works were for the most part formal and realistic representations of famous persons, significant objects, or copies of Classical statues.
However at its opening the sculpture was declared a “beautiful piece of sculpture, and a memorial worthy of our pioneer women”. Portrait painter Sir John Longstaff thought it an important work. He believed that it would very effectively symbolise pioneer women and that, although some may have wished for a more realistic figure, the sculptor was correct in choosing its form. “It is dignified and impressive and will have a lasting appeal,” he said.