Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: News And Features
How Greenway forged a city
QUERULOUS, bumptious, pugnacious, arrogant, irascible, risible, vain. Sound like an architect near you? Francis Greenway, Australia’s revered first government architect, was all of the above. But he wasn’t dim. Which makes the story all the stranger.
When Greenway, a skint, thirtysomething, nobody-architect in 1812 Bristol, forged the signature of his client’s solicitor to a promissory note of ¤250, he was either one brick short of the entablature or had some inkling of a greater destiny.
The forgery was always going to be discovered since both the client, Colonel Doolan, and his solicitor, Mr Cooke, were alive and barking. And even had the fraud worked, with Doolan, through whim or absentmindedness, being prepared to cough up the readies, Greenway stood to gain nothing since he was already a declared bankrupt. The proceeds would have enriched only his creditors.
Forgery was a capital offence. Greenway pleaded guilty and was sentenced to be hanged by the neck etc, but the sentence was transmuted to 14 years’ transportation. In February 1814, convict Greenway somehow contrived to land in Sydney bearing a letter of introduction – presumed genuine – from Captain (then Admiral) Phillip himself. By July, Greenway had his ticket of leave, his wife and children and a fledgling private practice (“plans of buildings either taken or copied”) at 5 per cent fee. He was completing a courthouse drawing for Governor Macquarie and touting his services as government architect, “as a promoter and encourager of the most useful Art to society … I shall on all occasions readily exert myself …” etc. He might have got the job sooner had he not also made the mistake of lecturing Macquarie, who harboured no small architectural pretensions, on the niceties of educated taste. But designers were thin on the ground in the young colony, unlike mud and related underfoot unmentionables, and in March 1816 Macquarie formally appointed Greenway acting Civil Architect at three shillings per diem.
Greenway was affronted by the salary but took the job and kept it for seven years. During that time, although the shillings stubbornly failed to increase, 45 of Greenway’s designs were built. The 10 which remain are some of Sydney’s greatest treasures, including the Watsons Bay lighthouse, St Matthew’s Windsor, St James’ in the city, the stables (now Conservatorium), the Macquarie Place obelisk and the Hyde Park Barracks. True, they are the works of a strictly minor talent. As a Herald editorial observed in 1954, “Greenway has been overrated because of his rarity. With the possible exception of the Barracks and St Matthew’s Church at Windsor, how many of his buildings would be noticed in an English country town?”
For us, though, and not only through the lack of competition, the Greenway buildings are special, some of our earliest permanent markers of the uprooted civilisation at our origin.
In this way, Greenway’s forgotten forgery, that simple, perverse, inexplicable crime, floated him from provincial obscurity to major footnote status, at least.
And none too soon, then, for a decent Greenway show. Francis Greenway, the Historic Houses Trust’s current exhibition at the Hyde Park Barracks, is curated and catalogued by historians James Broadbent and Joy Hughes. Throughout his life, as their book compellingly details, and despite some remarkable turn-ups, Greenway insisted on poisoning his own chalice. GREENWAY’s first year in The Job, 1816, had seen the start of construction on the lighthouse, the obelisk and the St John’s Parsonage in Parramatta for s&m-reverend Samuel Marsden, with further commissions for an arms store or “citadel” on Observatory Hill, a wharf and a church at Windsor, another church at Liverpool and a new military barrack in Sydney. On New Year’s Day 1817, the Governor announced a further wish-list of 26 new public buildings for imminent design and construction, including a new Government House, church, courthouse, barrack and fort in Sydney, a general hospital at Parramatta and
other succulent commissions in Windsor and Liverpool. Greenway should have felt fat and happy.
Meanwhile, however, he had failed to deliver on a commission from officers of the 46th Regiment to produce a set of seven masonic aprons for the foundation ceremony of Captain Piper’s house on Eliza’s Point. Murky business at best. But Greenway, rather than apologise, wrote an “insulting letter” to Captain Edward Sanderson of the 46th, following through with a second, more inflammatory epistle.
So incensed was the captain that, five days before Christmas and in full public view, he personally horse-whipped Greenway in the York Street barrack square. Greenway, in turn, pursued Sanderson through the criminal court (which fined the captain ¤5 but found his action “justifiable”) and the Supreme Court, which returned Greenway ¤20 damages and the lasting enmity of the very class on which his professional preferment depended.
From that point, arguably, Greenway’s lives were numbered. He believed himself, no doubt quite rightly, the finest design talent in the colony, and savagely dismembered any perceived threat to that status. When young Henry Kitchen arrived from England with a recommendation from Secretary of State Lord Bathurst, Macquarie appointed him supervising architect for the new church of St Matthew at Windsor, which Greenway had already designed and documented.
Greenway criticised the quality of workmanship and, through an official inquiry in 1818, ensured that Kitchen was blamed, removed from the job and professionally ruined. Greenway was reinstated and Kitchen died young, but not before taking the opportunity during the Bigge Commission the following year to revenge himself on Greenway.
Some of Greenway’s best works were nearing completion. His palatial design for the Macquaries’ Government House in the Domain – a domed and colonnaded number more suited to the splendours of vice-regal India than poor little Sydney – was killed by Bathurst’s gentle suggestion to Macquarie that he, the Governor, be personally liable for any unauthorised expenditure. But the Obelisk, the Hyde Park Barracks, Chief Justice Bent’s house in Macquarie Place, the Governor’s castellated stables in the Domain, the Female Factory at Parramatta and St Matthew’s, Windsor, were all substantially complete by 1820, with St Matthew’s consecrated in 1822, and St James’ in 1824. The twin forts which formed the backbone of Macquarie’s grand plan for Sydney Harbour, Fort Macquarie on Bennelong Point (demolished 1901) and the Dawes Point battery (demolished 1925) were also largely complete. But the worm was already well into the rose. Bathurst was an imaginative type whose response to Macquarie’s request for an increase in Greenway’s three shillings a day was a downsizing counter-proposal, amalgamating the posts of civil architect and civil engineer. The moment he learned of Macquarie’s intention to house himself and Elizabeth in a manner “so essentially necessary for the personal comfort of the Governor of this country and for the dignity of the rank he has the honour to hold in it”, Bathurst dispatched Commissioner Bigge to stamp out government extravagance in the colony.
MACQUARIE’S civic vision shuddered to a halt. Greenway survived both the inquiry and Macquarie’s subsequent resignation, responding not with regret or apology towards his great patron but with a series of preposterous claims amounting to some ¤12,000, and a dispute over the adequacy of Macquarie’s parting grant to him of 324 hectares and six cows from government herds.
Such fractiousness notwithstanding, the new Governor Brisbane confirmed his position and the 5 per cent terms Greenway had always desired. But within seven months the architect had dissipated this goodwill and in November 1822 was unceremoniously sacked.
He was 45 years old and in debt, with six (later seven) children to feed. The family occupied a government house at The Rocks end of George Street, where Mary Greenway, despite the constant breeding, ran a small school as income supplement. For a few years Greenway’s practice dwindled on, but the last building which can confidently be ascribed to him was the Colchester warehouse/theatre for Barnett Levey in George Street, destroyed by fire in 1840. For the last decade of his life Greenway and his family lived in increasing poverty, constantly pursued by creditors, sustaining intermittent forced sales of their goods and chattels, and government attempts to reclaim the George Street house. Greenway took to writing rambling, fanciful, and often libellous letters to the press.
After Mary died in 1832, several of the children removed to the tiny cottage on the farm at Tarro, which Greenway had been obliged partially to sell to pay debts. Finally evicted from George Street, Greenway himself moved there some months before his death from typhoid fever in September 1837, aged 59. He was remembered by his children as “violent-tempered … dictatorial and quarrelsome” – and buried in an unmarked grave.
So, what is Greenway’s significance? By the 1830s his work, which was in the Georgian style and largely out of fashion even while he was building it, was openly reviled. Dying in disregard is itself no slight upon greatness. Sir Christopher Wren was barred from the site of St Paul’s and was obliged to watch its construction from a nearby house: many more recent architects, once adored, know the serpent’s tooth of popular abandonment. And then there’s greatness by association. Hughes and Broadbent speculate that Greenway, who on a drawing submission to London’s Royal Academy had once recorded his address as “at Mr Nash’s”, may have been acquainted not only with Nash – possibly even as a pupil – but also with Humphrey Repton and other luminaries.
But what of Greenway’s work? Of the little that survives, some, like the stables/Conservatorium, with its clumsy castellations (required by Macquarie), flat gothic arches and thick, prosthesis-pink paint, probably wouldn’t have survived without the Greenway name. Other works, such as the Barracks at Hyde Park and St James’, have an intrinsic dignity deriving not only from their Georgian simplicity, guaranteed to appeal as vividly to modern sensibilities as it was repulsive to the Victorians, but also from a fine sense of proportion and a sympathetic handling of materials.
In terms of spatial quality Greenway offers us little to remember. The Conservatorium has no interior to speak of; the barracks has been much improved by its recent conversion to a museum, while inside St James’ is just another 18th-century church, truncated well before its natural height and condemned by its flat ceiling to a most unspiritual worldliness.
Then again, this earthbound quality may be as appropriate in a church which started life as a courthouse as in a city which started life as a prison.
Eleven illus: Designs on dignity …
Hyde Park Barracks, one of the surviving works of Francis Greenway (inset).
Main photograph by JAMES ALCOCK FRANCIS GREENWAY’S SURVIVING BUILDINGS St Matthew’s Church Windsor St Lukes Church, Liverpool St James Curhc, Sydney Court House, Windsor The Conservatorium of Music, Sydney Cleveland house, Surry Hills Supreme Court,
Sydney Old Hospital, Liverpool Hyde Park Barrakcs, Sydney Macquarie Lighthouse, South Head