Builder of Beauty

A.G. Evans, William Wardell: Building with Conviction (Connor Court, 2010), 314 pages, $39.95 

In 1996, fire destroyed St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta. When it reopened in November 2003, visitors found the building transformed. The interior now resembles a cross between the Guggenheim in New York and the United Nations General Assembly (only with far less comfortable seating). There are barbed wire sculptures, and a statue of St Mary MacKillop that a certain Australian prelate once described as looking like Darth Vader. I disagree; it actually looks more like the Emperor, but we won’t quibble.

Bagging St Patrick’s Parramatta, however, is like shooting fish in a barrel; it looks as if it was designed by someone from Ikea who had a conversion experience while watching The Jetsons. But my bad manners are actually connected to the subject of this book review, because in June 1865, over a hundred years earlier, St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney also burnt to the ground. When Archbishop Polding heard the news, he was almost as flattened as the cathedral, but he was sensible enough to approach a really good architect—a proven cathedral-builder and a man who clearly knew his onions. And so he commissioned William Wardell to design the new St Mary’s.

Tony Evans’s biography of Wardell—launched by Cardinal Pell in September this year—will come as no surprise to those who know his earlier writings. Evans has already explored the life of priest-architect John Cyril Hawes, the man who designed and built some of Western Australia’s most striking churches (including the Catholic cathedral in Geraldton), and ended his life as “Fra Jerome”, the celebrated Hermit of Cat Island in the Bahamas. Evans’s biographies of wild Irishmen like John Boyle O’Reilly (transported convict, poet and Fenian) and C.Y. O’Connor (engineer, genius and suicide) also show that he’s drawn not only to those who can create a mould, but break it quite thoroughly as well.

So where does William Wardell—Puginist, convert, respectable husband and father—come into all of this? Given his almost stolid bourgeois life, Wardell would at first seem an odd subject for Evans. Yet this apparently phlegmatic and balanced man produced two of Australia’s most beautiful cathedrals—St Patrick’s in Melbourne, and later St Mary’s in Sydney. They are quite different buildings, and yet they are the work of one man. St Mary’s perhaps wins the prize for exterior attractiveness, but the interior of St Patrick’s is truly beautiful, and one of the purest Gothic creations to survive the mini-Reformation of the 1960s.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding Wardell’s appeal: underneath that mutton-chop-whiskered exterior lay a highly creative and imaginative man, and a very skilled architect. There has been very little thorough research and writing on Wardell before now, and the story of his early life is largely conjecture. Only a few fragments of evidence have survived to tell us about his formative years, except that he came from working-class origins, and Evans hints at a bit of autobiographic reinvention in Wardell’s later life in Australia.

Evans is also scrupulously fair about Wardell’s very tenuous relationship with John Henry Newman, which only the most vivid imagination could call a friendship. Wardell’s relationship with the flamboyant and moody Augustus Pugin, on the other hand, was complex and interesting, and is almost a stand-alone subject. Pugin strongly influenced Wardell, and then seems to have spent the rest of his life criticising Wardell for being strongly influenced by him.

Driven to emigrate by a mystery illness, which Evans suggests may have been tuberculosis (rather than an overdose of Pugin), Wardell came first to Melbourne, where he—like so many other talented migrants—became the butt of professional jealousy and pettiness. I was strongly reminded of colonial architect George Temple Poole’s departure from Western Australia in 1897 under similar circumstances, but Wardell had to face sectarianism as well, which didn’t help.

So he went north to Sydney, where he encountered more of the same, only perhaps a little more politely managed. The back cover of this book tells us that he was hounded out of Melbourne but welcomed and appreciated in Sydney, and that is superficially true, but Wardell had plenty of problems in Sydney later on which may have tempered his enthusiasm for the place. It certainly didn’t stop his output of work: Wardell was astonishingly prolific, carrying out a huge range of surveying, engineering and architectural work throughout his lifetime, including the celebrated English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank’s head office on Collins Street in Melbourne (the “Gothic Bank”) which is still a head-turner.

It is easy to sense Evans’s sympathy for Wardell: a man whose designs were brilliant but often suffered in their execution because of on-site disasters: short cuts, shoddy materials, inept overseers and labourers. Evans provides illustrations galore of both the good and the bad in England and overseas. There were, reassuringly, some public service scandals to liven things up, but on the whole, the life and times of William Wardell—an intense and rather grim-looking man—serve once again to remind us that talent, patronage and hard work can produce amazing results that today’s feather-bedded “arts community” would be hard put to reproduce on any scale.

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