William Wardell: Australia's greatest church architect
Building with Conviction
by A.G. Evans
(Connor Court Publishing, 2010, hardback, 314pp, $39.95. ISBN: 978-1-92142-144-0. Available from Freedom Publishing)
William Wilkinson Wardell, architect, engineer and man of faith, was born in the East End of London on 27 September 1823. Even as I held out my hand for this book to read and review I didn't know why I wanted to, though I did. That instinct was amply rewarded.
Many readers may know that Wardell was the architect who designed both St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne and St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, and that he was a convert to the Catholic faith. A.G. Evan's biography reveals that he was much more.
Wardell is a link with Dickensian England, the 19th century revival in Gothic architecture in Europe, the Anglo-Catholic Movement in England and the conversion of many prominent figures to the Catholic religion, the railway building boom in England, the building of the foundations of the Catholic Church in Australia, and of civic and government architecture and infrastructure in this country.
Wardell's parents were Master and Mistress of a workhouse in the East End of London and indeed he grew up in that workhouse. He saw close up this system that modern readers view with horror due to the exposure of its evils and cruelty, in particular by Charles Dickens in his writings. Here the author notes that Wardell and his descendents have been silent on the workhouse connection and on Wardell's relationship with his parents. It is not known whether he thought they were kind or indifferent to the sufferings of the inmates.
The one oblique reference he made in this respect was to argue, in defence of Gothic architecture:
"(Gothic) does not perpetuate to (the poor) the hated forms of their workhouse; but ﾁ... tales they have heard of those days in England when poverty was not thought a sin, but was to be relieved, when to be sick was to be visited, when to be hungry was to be fed and all of this too not in the modern, grudging spirit of a union workhouse and griping guardians, but with the open-handed unsparing liberality of a Catholic monastery."
Thus we have his view of the workhouse, not necessarily that which his parents superintended, but certainly of the system.
Dickens was also a friend of Wardell and he and his family took part in amateur theatricals at Dicken's home in Tavistock Square in London. Wardell was part of a wide group of highly talented and prominent artists, writers and actors among whom most readers would recognise the names of William Thackeray, Edward Landseer and Augustus W. Pugin.
Pugin (1812-1852) was older than Wardell and is known as the "father" of the Gothic revival of the 19th century. Evans cites architectural historians, with whose views he seems to agree, that although Wardell was certainly influenced by Pugin he was his own man and did not merely work in the shadow of the older man.
Pugin was also one of the prominent Catholic converts with whom Wardell was acquainted. Evan's contention is that the influence of Gothic architecture on each of them in terms of their conversion was different. Pugin is reputed as finding in the Gothic form the truth of the Catholic faith while for Wardell, according to Evans: "[While his] path to Catholicism may well have been illuminated by his study of cathedrals, ﾁ... the remnants of his library ﾁ... show that his conversion was an intellectual one."
Other prominent Catholic connections were Cardinal Newman, John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, Archbishop John Bede Polding and Bishop Robert Willson. Evans explains the importance of the patronage of the Earl in the volatile atmosphere of anti-Catholicism fuelled by opponents of the Catholic Emancipation Acts which meant that converts like Pugin and Wardell found themselves excluded from major contracts. The Earl's generosity in paying in whole or in part for church building ensured their talent was not lost or diminished in output.
Wardell met Archbishop Polding and Bishop Willson in England and they were valuable connections when he arrived in Australia in 1858. Bishop Willson was the Bishop of Hobart and invited Wardell to design the cathedral for his diocese. Even more interestingly he almost single-handedly had the notorious penal settlement on Norfolk Island closed, thus ending the misery and degradation of those transported there.
Wardell's life and work in Australia are of course closer to home. By the time he came to Australia though, for his and his family's health, he had already established himself as a successful architect. The book contains photographs of some of his most well-known and beautiful churches in England which Australian readers may not know of but might want to visit on seeing the photographs.
In Australia Wardell's best-known works are of course St Patrick's and St Mary's cathedrals. What is less appreciated is that he also designed quite a number of parish churches and a Catholic university college (St John's College at Sydney University) and government buildings (Government House in Melbourne) and banks (the "Gothic Bank" on the corner of Collins and Queens Streets, Melbourne) and Genazzano Convent (Cotham Road, Kew, Melbourne).
Wardell's initial professional training was as an engineer (his first professional work was surveying for railway building at the height of the railway boom in England in the 1840s) and he was appointed head of the Public Works Department in Victoria. In that capacity he designed or had oversight of many public buildings and works including the Mint, the Alfred Graving Dock at Williamstown and the Customs House.
On a personal note, he designed the beautiful little parish church in the small country town where my mother was born and where my parents were married. Now I feel vindicated that I've always thought it a beautiful church. It is modest, as befits its place in a small Irish farming community, but exquisitely proportioned so that the eye is drawn up and with it the mind and heart uplifted. I think this is the function of a church building, a principle that has not always guided the designing of churches since the 1970s. St Joseph's Church in Warrnambool is another of Wardell's with which I am very familiar but which is not so well preserved.
I am motivated now to do a tour of the other Wardell buildings in Melbourne: St Mary's on Dandenong Road, East St Kilda, St Ignatius, Richmond, St John's, Heidelberg, and St John's Anglican Church in Toorak. Readers in other states may like to do a search for any Wardell legacy in their locality.