England tends to forget — even ignore — her sons of great talent who leave to work overseas no matter that their work overseas might compare more than favourably with work done by others who remain in the mother country. [Evans 91-92]

Cover of the book under review

The London-born architect William Wardell (1823-1899) is celebrated in Australia for his magnificent cathedrals and grand public buildings, but only a dozen or so of his churches, and a handful of his other buildings, still stand on British soil today. His name is practically forgotten in his country of origin. All the more reason, then, to welcome a biography that considers his whole oeuvre, and is now easily available here.

The biographer's first challenge is the dearth of information about Wardell's formative years in the East End. Both Wardell and his descendants drew a veil over his childhood in the staff quarters of the Poplar Union Workhouse, and his brief spell at sea. The first steps in his career are also known only in outline. A. G. Evans has done his best with the scant material, padding out the bare records with social history about workhouses, education, the railways (for which he did some surveying), and so on. His opening chapters are liberally sprinkled with words and phrases like "may well have," "probably" and the oxymoronic "what seems certain." Nevertheless, there is some valuable context here. For example, Evans's research into the Workhouse's Trustees' Minutes shows that Wardell's parents, as Master and Matron of the workhouse, would have received a percentage of the profits from the paupers' labours. This not only indicates one source of their income, but also helps to explain Wardell's reticence about his past. In an article published in the Weekly Register of 12 January 1850, he claimed that churches in the Gothic style comforted the poor because they did not "perpetuate to them the hated forms of their workhouse hall," reminding them instead of a time when "poverty was not thought to be a sin" and the needy were cared for "not in the modern grudging spirit of a union warehouse and griping guardians, but with the open-handed unsparing liberality of a Catholic monastery" (19). This is easily read as a reflection on the way the Poplar workhouse operated.

Here was a young man with a conscience, then, who saw an answer in the Catholic faith to the moral ills of the age. And here, of course, was an architect who was convinced that Gothic forms could express that faith. If that sounds familiar, it was: like other young men in his profession at that time, including William Burges and George Gilbert Scott, Wardell had been hugely impressed by A. W. N. Pugin. But, having navigated the poorly charted waters of Wardell's early life, Evans now faces his next problem. Chapter 4 is entitled "The Pugin Connection." Here again it is "tempting to imagine" a great deal (41), for example, that Wardell attended the grand opening of Pugin's St Giles in Cheadle. Did he? Maybe — maybe not. What exactly was their connection, anyway? There is strong circumstantial evidence that they knew each other: they moved in the same circles, had mutual friends, and were sometimes even engaged (as at Our Ladye Star of the Sea in Greenwich) on the same projects (see Wardell's biography). But was Pugin really "impressed by Wardell's study of Gothic architecture and his enthusiasm for the Revival" (41)? Evans, usually careful to discriminate fact from hearsay, gives no documentation here. And if they were friends, as Evans continues to suggest (see later, 80), why did Pugin never mention the younger man in all his vast correspondence with John Hardman (see 47)? Indirect references elsewhere are less than promising. In an 1850 letter to his third wife Jane, Pugin complains about the church commissioned from Wardell in Clapham, calling it rudely, "'really almost ludicrous' as a parody of his work" (39). Evans himself reaches the conclusion that "Pugin loomed larger in Wardell's life and experience than Wardell loomed in Pugin's" (48); but he never seems to have "loomed" at all, except perhaps as a rival.

After this ticklish chapter, Evans deals with Wardell's early career in London, suggesting that "[a]s Pugin's popularity as an architect of churches declined, so Wardell's popularity grew" (71). This sounds a bit too neat, but at any rate Wardell made swift progress. Having alienated his parents and lost his inheritance by his conversion to Catholicism, he was at a disadvantage at first. Moreover, Catholics at that time were subject to a discrimination described by Queen Victoria herself as "painful and cruel" (38). But he soon established a family of his own, and Catholic emancipation had opened up new professional opportunities. In the eight years before he emigrated to Australia, Wardell built around thirty churches and other buildings, mostly in London but a few in Scotland. Evans is still forced back on phrases like "we can guess" (83) and "it is tempting to speculate" (91), but now he can focus on the works themselves, and, even though he is a biographer rather than an architectural historian, he goes into enough detail about them to show his subject's skill and promise. He rightly pays particular attention to St Mary and St Michael, Commercial Road, where Wardell fulfilled his brief for a church of "Cathedral-like proportions" (75), giving the surest indication yet of what was to come. Details of Wardell's years in Hampstead, when he lived next-door to the artist Clarkson Stanfield, and became friends with Dickens and others, are also handled well, his family's participation in this circle's amateur theatricals especially so. This was undoubtedly one of the happiest periods of his life.

St Mary's R.C. Cathedral, Sydney (click on the image for a larger picture and more information)

Then came the big change. Wardell, as Evans points out, was not the first English architect to emigrate to Australia. He did so on his doctor's advice: he probably suffered from tuberculosis. But the venture could also be seen as a career move. Garnering testimonials from the best-placed of his clients, including Cardinals and Bishops, and from friends like Stanfield, Wardell assembled them into a pamphlet and sent advance copies of it to prospective clients at his destination — the rapidly expanding city of Melbourne, then reputed to be "the metropolis of the Southern Hemisphere" (113). The tactic paid off, and he was soon earning commissions. While engaged on the first of these, St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, he won many more, including St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sydney.

However, Evans shows that it was by no means plain sailing for Wardell now. He resigned as architect of St John's College, University of Sydney (still built to his designs) because of a bitter disagreement over fees, and his appointment as Clerk of Works and Chief Architect in the Public Works Department in Melbourne exposed him to professional envy and attacks from the anti-Catholic sector. The eventual acceptance of his ambitious plans for Government House, Melbourne, after another architect had won the competition for it, provoked a Royal Commission in 1873, and an underling's charge of unfair treatment led to a Parliamentary Board of Enquiry soon afterwards. Worse, Evans seems inclined to believe that, for all the constitutional factors involved, Victoria's Premier, Graham Barry, specifically targeted Wardell in his cull of government officials on the notorious Black Wednesday of 8 January 1878. Relocating to Sydney, Wardell built up his practice there instead. Architecture could be a challenging profession. Wardell had to be, and was, strong-minded to stay at the top of it.

Besides the two splendid Gothic cathedrals and the neo-classical Government House — which Trollope, even as a visitor to the site, thought might be "too palatial" for someone to manage on a colonial salary (173) — Wardell's portfolio bulged with grand banks, vast warehouses and so on. Evans has one chapter entitled "A Great Volume of Work" and another entitled "Architect of Commerce and Industry." He also adds two useful appendices listing Wardell's works, the first cataloguing his extant works, the second, considerably longer and compiled by Wardell himself, listing the 320-odd projects carried out by the Victorian Public Works Department under his supervision.

But perhaps Wardell's greatest legacy was his ecclesiastical work, and Evans devotes much space to it. We learn that St Patrick's is a blend of Early English and Decorated Gothic styles, and that, at 95' high, its nave is higher than that of Durham and Gloucester Cathedrals, while its width is greater than that of Canterbury, Salisbury and Norwich. St Mary's differs less in dimensions than in atmosphere, with more stained glass, and less decoration to distract the eye from it. Facts and figures are nicely enriched by appreciative comments as the biographer progresses through the two interiors, and, although he joins in the sport of comparing them, he concludes that they are both splendid in their own ways, "supporting sisters, not warring rivals" (221). Even without the glossary of architectural terms at the end, laymen will get a sense here of Wardell's achievement in his best-loved works.

Some quibbles. There are a few typos, such as "summery" for "summary" (251) and "Grooms Hill" for "Crooms Hill" (267), and some mangled sentences ("Although... but this .... and that," 57). There is also an awful pun, on Dr Giacinto Achilli's "Achilli's heel" (36). One can see the temptation! More worrying are some sweeping generalisations. "The character of Wardell's churches suggests solidity and sound construction, Pugin's tend to be slender and more ornate" (39). As for "solidity," Evans cannot have had in mind churches like Pugin's St Wilfrid's, Hulme or St Peter's Woolwich. Another: "Few if any cathedrals throughout the centuries can be said to have been designed and completed by one architect and in one style throughout..." (9). Evans seems unaware of J. L. Pearson's beautiful Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. Then, "Never again would a Cathedral be built in the Gothic style" (253): Edward Maufe's serene and spacious Guildford Cathedral (1936, consecrated 1961) is described in the Surrey Pevsner as "Curvilinear Gothic" (269). The index leaves something to be desired: for example, Our Ladye Star of the Sea is illustrated on p. 102, not 108. It is a shame, too, that the illustrations are all in black and white.

But these are quibbles, and assembling them like this creates rather a false impression. In general, Evans has performed quite a feat in bringing together all the available information about Wardell, and presenting it in such a pleasantly readable form. Perhaps now he will be better known and valued in the country that bore him, and where his career began.

Book under Review

Evans, A. G. William Wardell: Building with Conviction. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2011. 310pp. £ 15.99. ISBN 978-0-85244-767-3.

Last modified 24 June 2012