The Great Court

Take a step back in time as you enter the monumental Great Court – the heart of The University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus. Its inviting lawn, historical buildings and quirky sandstone carvings have made the Great Court a popular meeting place for decades.

When it was designed in the mid-1930s by Queensland Government architects Hennessy, Hennessy & Co., the Great Court was envisioned as a modern take on European quadrangles of monasteries and universities.

It was to be “original in conception, monumental in design, and embodying the Australian spirit of art with English culture”.

The centrepiece of the Great Court, the Forgan Smith Building, was the first to begin construction when the University relocated from Old Government House to St Lucia.

The foundation stone was laid by Queensland Premier the Hon. William Forgan Smith on 6 March 1937, with construction beginning the following year.

While sandstone was a popular material for monumental buildings at the time, what made the Great Court unique was the deliberate choice to use multiple colours and shades of the Helidon freestone.

This results in a patchwork-like effect of purples, lavenders, creams and browns that look especially attractive after rain.

The precinct played an important role in World War II, when the Allied Land Forces in the South West Pacific, led by General Sir Thomas Blamey, used the Forgan Smith Building as their headquarters. A bronze plaque commemorating this period can be found in the Forgan Smith tower.

The Great Court took more than 40 years to complete, and was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 2002.

Students crossing a barren Great Court in 1962
Students gather in the Great Court (around 1970)

Timeline of Great Court construction

Timeline of Great Court construction

There are more than 1000 stone carvings on the walls and columns of the Great Court, comprising a variety of subjects and artistic styles.

In 1939, the original planners engaged the first University Sculptor, John Theodore Muller (1873–1953), to “alleviate the severe simplicity of the outer walls” of the Great Court.

Muller and his associates produced several hundred carvings in a range of styles determined by the architects, including depictions of events from Queensland’s history; native flora and fauna; Aboriginal scenes; and coats of arms.

Scholarly figures from history were also depicted, including William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Confucius and Plato.

Following Muller’s death in 1953, work on the Great Court carvings languished for more than two decades.

Great Court King carving
Great Court King carving

Grotesques

In 1976, the University Senate invited several Queensland artists to submit a sample grotesque, and Dr Rhyl Kingston Hinwood AM (1940–) became the second University Sculptor. Over 35 years, she too completed several hundred diverse carvings, mostly of her own design.

It’s the grotesques, the most popular of the carvings, that give the Great Court its character. The style was chosen by John Muller, as it gave sculptors the artistic freedom to exaggerate the comical characteristics of their ‘anonymous’ chosen subjects.

The University hierarchy at the time did not want “representations of living persons” hanging from the walls.

The grotesques on the cloister walls introduce an element of humour to the Great Court, and include past UQ academics, historical scholarly figures, and people who have helped to shape UQ – from crane drivers to the sculptors themselves.

Friezes

These carved decorative bands or wall features, mostly bas-relief (low-relief), depict Indigenous life, historical scenes, scientific pioneers and noted literary authors.

Full-shields

Located at the top of the three- or four-sided columns within the cloisters, the full-shields generally represent the coats of arms of other universities around the world.

Half-shields

Located on the three-sided columns within the cloisters, these carvings depict Queensland flora.

Arch-carvings

Located on the outside walls of the cloisters, facing the Great Court lawn, these low-relief carvings depict Queensland flora and fauna.

Roundels

These round decorative panels depict mostly flora and fauna, but also the heads of some significant figures.

Statues

These high-relief three-dimensional carvings, either free-standing or attached to walls, are of famous scholars, writers and scientists, as well as books.

Inscriptions

Academic quotations, and the names of significant scholars in history, are carved into the sandstone.

Students in the Great Court (around 2010)

Learn more about the Great Court