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Warm portrait of a prolific architect

7 April 2018 207 views No Comment

‘A Life of Purpose: A Biography of John Sulman’
By Zeny Edwards
Longueville Media, 372pp, $59.95 (HB)


The Archibald Prize for portraiture makes headlines every year, but at the same time we also hear, less loudly, about the Sulman Prize for the best genre painting, subject painting or mural by an Australian artist.

The prize, established at the bequest of architect, artist, town planner, public intellectual and polemicist John Sulman (1849-1934), was first awarded in 1936. Yet despite its longevity few today know much about the man who started it.

There have been attempts to profile this ­English-born architect, who served as chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee from 1921 to 1924 and influenced the development of Canberra. The sheer amount of available material was sometimes offered as an excuse, when it should have been seen as boon.

At last we have the first comprehensive ­biography, ‘A Life of Purpose’, by Zeny Edwards, who conducted detailed research on Sulman’s experiences in England from 1849 to 1885.

Sulman was born at Greenwich in Kent and was subject to various ecclesiastical influences. Although often unwell, he worked in London as an architect. After producing and designing more than 70 churches and other buildings, including schools and houses, throughout Britain, he sold his profitable English practice in 1884.

In 1885, while president-elect of the English Architectural Association, Sulman moved to Australia with his wife and son.

Edwards has uncovered fascinating and useful details about Sulman’s life and work in his adopted country.

Sulman designed a number of public buildings in Canberra and NSW, with plenty of variations in his major works. They included the Armidale boarding school on the New England tablelands of northern NSW, which opened in February 1894, the Women’s College at Sydney University (1890-94), and Presbyterian churches at Woollahra (1889), Manly (1889-92) and Randwick (1890).

Arguably Sulman’s most important work is the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital at Concord, in Sydney’s inner west, built between 1890 and 1893. The book contains a number of detailed drawings and revealing photographs of this imposing building.

A tenacious person with a dedicated professional purpose (hence the book’s title), ­Sulman helped lead the movement for an Australian style of architecture and town planning.

Much of the original material used in this fine biography derives from Sulman’s papers, lodged at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

This tranche of useful material includes ­extensive family archives and letters; original drawings and watercolours of Sulman’s architectural designs; the diaries of his wives, Sarah and Annie, and his brother Arthur; the unpublished autobiography of his son, Thomas; and his own unfinished memoir, which he began writing ­towards the end of his eventful life.

Edwards argues that Sulman, in transitioning from a Victorian English architect to an anti­podean artistic visionary, deserves a special place in our history. She details his influential role in the development of the cultural and built identity of Australia. As an innovative architect and town planner, and an effective lobbyist for education, culture and the arts, he became “one of the nation’s most prominent social reformers of his generation”.

This illuminating book has more than 150 black-and-white and coloured photographs, as well as drafts of Sulman’s buildings. There’s a captivating photo of an elderly, bearded Sulman in 1926 looking for all the world like an Old ­Testament prophet. He is standing next to friend and collaborator John Jacob Crew Bradfield, an engineer who was pivotal in designing and constructing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and also Brisbane’s impressive Story Bridge.

Sulman’s life and work are well worth reading about and this lavishly produced biography is proof of that.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, April 7-8, 2018, review. Books p 21.

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