The Annual Sulman Art Prize awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW is named after him, John Longstaff’s portrait of him won the Archibald Prize in 1931 and he is credited with playing an outstanding and influential role in Australia’s cultural identity. The man is Sir John Sulman – the quintessential polymath who was architect, artist, lecturer, educator, writer, polemicist, environmentalist, philanthropist and patron of the arts. Writes biographer Zeny Edwards, “The Sulman name has become a part of the vocabulary of Australian architecture, town planning and the arts.” Dr Zeny Edwards is the author of A Life of Purpose – a Biography of John Sulman. On Wednesday 28 February, Zeny Edwards addressed The Sydney Institute to discuss the work and life of John Sulman.

SULMAN – PRODIGY OF HIS GENERATION

ZENY EDWARDS

I tried to see Sulman as his contemporaries saw him, to locate him within the professional and cultural contexts to which he gravitated, to judge him in accordance with the values and standards of his own time.

At various times Sulman linked the etymology of the name to possible Islamic (Sulaiman the Great) and Semitic (Salome, Solomon).  Despite the push and pull of these opposites, the name “Sulman” is simply a derivative of “soilman”, adapted to depict the way of life of Sulman’s farmer-ancestors.

England

John Sulman had been born twice before. The third son of John Sulman and Martha Quinton, he was the first of three boys all named “John” to survive infancy. Born on 29 August 1849, innocence and mischief defined Sulman’s childhood. As a child of five and a half, he was prone to tantrums, at a few instances throwing himself down the cellar steps in a fit of passion. The family doctor prescribed not medicine but school discipline, which led his parents to send him to board for a year at a girls’ school but even that did not work. He was a sickly child and through the years suffered “physical breakdowns”.

Born on 29 August 1849, innocence and mischief defined Sulman’s childhood.

His father, a shopkeeper dealt in fancy goods, more trinkets than jewellery, and later turned to speculative building with his son as apprentice. Sulman, at an early age, began to learn the tricks as well as the pitfalls of the trade.

At sixteen Sulman designed the family home, Derwent Villa in Ashburton Road, Surrey, later, he admitted that it was something he was not proud of because it was clumsy and “vernacular”. He studied at the Architectural Association until 1869. Sulman was not the golden boy at the Association despite being an assiduous student. He was articled with various architects, some good, many bad; developed his networking talents; and expanded his architectural knowledge at the RIBA library including, spending his student days tracing illustrations from Viollet-le-Duc’s ten-volume Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française, as he could not afford to buy the original publications. A Pugin travelling studentship honed his analytical skills of medieval and Gothic architecture. For the Pugin scholar, God indeed was in the detail, and Sulman’s drawings captured on paper many godly inspired creations, which he compiled in a “Sketchbook”, of massive size and bound in leather and gilt. It weighed a good twelve kilograms.

He was articled with various architects, some good, many bad; developed his networking talents; and expanded his architectural knowledge at the RIBA library including, spending his student days tracing illustrations from Viollet-le-Duc’s ten-volume Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française, as he could not afford to buy the original publications.

Through the years, Sulman learnt the value of enterprise and honed his skills at networking, and despite an initial temerity, he learnt to seize every opportunity that came along on the chance of gaining work from it. Influential “patrons” took him under their wing. The first of these was J.C. Gallaway, high up in the British Congregational Society. At 21, through Gallaway, Sulman secured his first official commission to design the Congregational Church at Dedham, a little village in Essex.

With the successful Dedham commission giving him public exposure, Sulman quickly hit his stride. The second patron was William Garland Soper, resident and major landholder of Caterham, Surrey. Soper, a staunch Congregationalist, was a London merchant with questionable business dealings in the Cape Colony and South Africa.  And the third was Sulman’s future father-in-law, Thomas Redgate, deacon at the George Street Congregational Church at Croydon. With the intercession of these three, Sulman secured the commission to design Caterham Congregational Church. The first official ceremony at Caterham was the wedding of Sulman to Sarah Clark Redgate on 15 April 1875. Not much later, Sulman designed his largest domestic commission, Soper’s mansion, Harestone, not far from the church. His magnificent colour renderings of Harestone were exhibited at the Royal Academy and critiqued as a work on art on paper, although closer analysis hint at Sulman doing a bit of “cooking”, manipulating the perspective to make the building more imposing than it actually was.

Not much later, Sulman designed his largest domestic commission, Soper’s mansion, Harestone, not far from the church. His magnificent colour renderings of Harestone were exhibited at the Royal Academy and critiqued as a work on art on paper

More church commissions followed in succession, foretelling that the Congregational commissions would become the mainstay of his career. He took in a partner, John Rhodes, who manned the practice on Sulman’s absence due to illness and commissions. Over the years, the Sulman and Rhodes partnership established a reputation for reliability and diligence. “Let the job speak for itself” was its modus operandi. The partnership, and friendship, came to irreconcilable end due to Rhodes’s eccentric Anglican evangelism bordering on lunacy.

Sulman’s career success was timely, riding the wave of Victoria’s Golden Years. It was a glory period of peace, libertarianism, prosperity, industrial wealth, and political power, all these reflected visually in its architecture.

Although a star on the rise, Sulman never achieved star status. The location of most of Sulman’s churches in country towns and villages may have limited recognition of his designs to local folk.

Although a star on the rise, Sulman never achieved star status.

An exception was the George Green Schools, named after a shipbuilder of the Blackwall Yard and popular local Nonconformist philanthropist, who commissioned Sulman to design a school that would provide free board, clothing and secondary education for all the children in the neighbourhood of Blackwall and Poplar.

In the early 1880s, Sulman suffered one of his most serious nervous breakdowns. He went to Europe with his parents for two months to recuperate only to return to a wife who had become desperately ill with consumption, exacerbated by the rearing of three young children and the frequent, lengthy absences of a husband deeply engrossed in his career.  The only cure would be to go to a warmer climate, doctors said – hence, the inevitable decision by Sulman to move his family to Australia.

In the early 1880s, Sulman suffered one of his most serious nervous breakdowns. He went to Europe with his parents for two months to recuperate only to return to a wife who had become desperately ill with consumption

One can only surmise that Sulman leaving for Australia at thirty-six years of age at the rise of a promising career may have cut off any opportunity for him to make a name for himself in England. His permanent absence eventually erased whatever memory there may have been of his work. Compendiums on Victorian architects and architecture do not include John Sulman in their dictionaries or biographical indices. Publications featuring articles about his work more often than not erroneously spelt his name or came up with a different name altogether. Critical reviews appeared many decades later after Sulman had left England; and they were not complimentary. “Rather emphatic, sometimes clumsy” wrote one critic; and “a survival of High Victorian heaviness” wrote another. Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that the dwindling congregations presently worshipping in extant Sulman-designed churches in England still regard them with a high degree of pride and affection.

Australia

Sulman was instantly captivated by the Sydney’s charm. “Sydney unfolds”, Sulman wrote in his diary, followed by acclamations of the harbour which outshone everything else. He could not have chosen a better time to arrive in Australia. The country was still in the midst of a building boom and the building industry had become Sydney’s biggest single industry. Sydney buzzed with tremendous activity with the construction of houses, commercial institutions, and transport facilities, but its town plan begged improvement and Sulman was determined to do something about it.

He could not have chosen a better time to arrive in Australia. The country was still in the midst of a building boom and the building industry had become Sydney’s biggest single industry.

Sulman wasted no time in finding out who was who in Sydney. Immediately, Sulman called on Josiah Mullens, founder and president of the Sydney Stock Exchange and a prominent resident of Burwood, west of Sydney. Mullens, in turn, introduced the Sulmans to architect Harry Chambers Kent and his wife. That introduction provided Sulman a foothold into the elite architectural circle of Sydney.

The Sulmans made their first home in Strathfield and the community welcomed them with warm hospitality. They quickly made many friends including tobacco merchant and philanthropist George Todman, ship chandler Walter Buzacott, the Tooheys at Torrington across the road, and the Allards. Other notable residents, including the Gillespie, Pearse, Arnott, and Sly families, became not only Sulman’s friends but also his clients later on.

In April 1886, Sulman had acquired a new office at Bank Chambers, Jamieson Street, Sydney, and noted that “today opened it for business”.

A few months later, Sulman bought a half share into the practice of Charles Blackmann, for £3,000. Sulman was enticed by Blackmann’s lucrative practice, his books showing a net profit of £6,000 per annum, and an impressive client list that included Australian Joint Stock Bank, Australian Mutual Provident Society, and the Mutual Life Association. The partnership of “Blackmann and Sulman” of 375 George Street, Sydney, was officially announced on 21 October 1886 in a public notice in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Six months into the partnership Blackmann went on an extended holiday overseas and Sulman clearly felt proud to be left in sole charge of the practice. Things seemed to be going smoothly until Sulman discovered that Blackmann had no intention of returning to Australia after his alleged holiday and had, in fact, absconded to New Zealand with his mistress. Sulman wrote: “… from the day of [Blackmann’s] departure I never saw him again. It came out later that he had gone away with a barmaid and left his wife and family behind. The Equity Court, with Adrian Knox as Sulman’s legal counsel, dissolved the partnership on 28 April 1888. It took Sulman nearly three years before he could pay off Blackmann’s share and an extra sum to obtain sole ownership of the practice. The professional tragedy affected not only Sulman but also his whole family. The emotional trauma aggravated Sarah’s health and his parents considered the situation grave enough for them to hastily travel to Australia in 1887 to help their son cope with the crisis. They never returned to England.

Things seemed to be going smoothly until Sulman discovered that Blackmann had no intention of returning to Australia after his alleged holiday and had, in fact, absconded to New Zealand with his mistress.

In 1886, to raise his reputation as an architect of influence, Sulman established a club, “The Palladians”, as a response to concerns raised by the Royal Institute of British Architects “that professional ethics [in Australia] were at low ebb, and that the local Institute had only 20 members and had practically no influence”.

The twelve founding members of “The Palladians” were already notably recognised in New South Wales and immediately attracted the interest of the press. Unbeknownst to its members, “The Palladians” was the principal factor in Sulman’s calculated plan to get a foothold in the Institute of Architects of New South Wales. “The Palladians” did not waste any time to request to amalgamate with the Institute of Architects of New South Wales. The terms of amalgamation were adopted by the Institute “with much satisfaction” but at the election of office bearers, Sulman, despite his lobbying, failed to become president.  It clearly showed that the club members saw through his pre-emptive machinations and that he had overestimated his appeal.

Unbeknownst to its members, “The Palladians” was the principal factor in Sulman’s calculated plan to get a foothold in the Institute of Architects of New South Wales.

Sulman was ostracised for wearing his Englishness and professional status heavily. They perceived him as the archetypal English colonist, a “donnish newcomer” ennobled by the virtues of his professional standing in England to be the conquering hero in this yet infant territory. The manner in which Sulman actively promoted himself aroused antipathy amongst other architects, but the most vitriolic antagonism was to come from Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt.

Hunt, eleven years Sulman’s senior, described Sulman as “the young English gentleman recently come amongst us for damaging the profession”. He sarcastically referred to Sulman and “The Palladians” as “Messrs Treachery Jealousy and Co”. Those remarks, according to Hunt’s biographer, Professor Max Freeland, “were the first shots in a battle that was to last till death… Hunt, rather than Sulman, succeeded Rowe as President of the Institute on 8 May 1889. That was the ultimate blow to Sulman’s bid for power.” During the seven years of Hunt’s presidency, Sulman attended only one Institute meeting.

Hunt, rather than Sulman, succeeded Rowe as President of the Institute on 8 May 1889. That was the ultimate blow to Sulman’s bid for power.” During the seven years of Hunt’s presidency, Sulman attended only one Institute meeting.

Freeland suggests that Hunt and Sulman had become victims of their own battle: “too individualistic by nature… uncooperative with potential rivals and not a little jealous. Few of them walk with the angels but, also, few of them tread with the Devil. Most of them do a little of both.”

In 1930, Sulman established and funded the Sulman Award for Architecture, still regarded today as the most prestigious award by the Institute of Architects of New South Wales for architectural work of the highest merit. The award ensured that Sulman’s name would be inextricably linked with the Institute to perpetuate his memory for all time. Many would now consider this award as Sulman’s own form of vindication and a way to ensure his legacy would be acknowledged for all time.

Sulman used all avenues of opportunity to promote himself. Sulman’s adroit use of the press became more directly apparent through the “first class” “trade” journal, the Australasian Builder and Contractors’ News, (ABCN). He published a series of ground-breaking articles on an “Australian Style” which catapulted the paper into being regarded the “mouthpiece of architect”.

In July 1887, Sulman was appointed by the Senate of the University of Sydney to give a series of 40 lectures on Building Construction and the History of Architecture. His star pupil was JJC Bradfield who topped the class, and was later awarded a Bachelor of Engineering degree with Honours, the University Gold Medal, and the Sulman Prize for Architecture in 1889. Prophetically, Bradfield’s final year project was a design for a bridge.

His star pupil was JJC Bradfield who topped the class, and was later awarded a Bachelor of Engineering degree with Honours, the University Gold Medal, and the Sulman Prize for Architecture in 1889.

In 1889, Sulman acquired a partner, Joseph Porter Power. Power oversaw all commissions during Sulman’s frequent absences through illness and travel overseas.

Patronage

The Walker family, particularly Thomas and James Walker, took Sulman under their wing, and from whom Sulman would obtain major commissions.

In 1888, John Sulman was awarded the commission to design the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital in Concord, which should have been, for all intents and purposes, awarded to another architect, John Kirkpatrick. A competition was held which Kirkpatrick won and in which Sulman did not even gain a place. A month later, news got around that Sulman had been awarded the commission to design the hospital. Why Kirkpatrick lost the commission to Sulman is not clearly documented. But it was obvious that Sulman had exerted influence over the adjudicators and Trustees of the Walker Estate. The Trustees officially awarded the commission to John Sulman on 31 December 1888, the day Sulman’s wife Sarah died, occurring whilst he was at Yaralla Chambers showing the Walker clan the plans for the new hospital.

It was also through the Walkers that Sulman would meet his future second wife. Thomas Walker, a widower, called upon his sister Joanna to serve as a surrogate mother for his eight-year-old daughter Eadith. To provide her motherless niece a playmate and companion, Joanna adopted six-year-old Annie Elizabeth Masefield, daughter of her friend, George Masefield. Joanna Walker met with Sulman, the widower, privately just prior to her death in 1890, to discuss with him the possibility of leaving Annie in his care, as his wife. Annie, fifteen years Sulman’s junior, was to become Sulman’s second wife in 1893. They were to have four children.

The Macarthur-Onslows, friends of the Walkers, became Sulman’s clients in 1894, when they commissioned Sulman to design two gate lodges for Camden Park, the home of John Macarthur. Later, Sulman designed for Macarthur’s great-grandson, James, “a gentleman’s country residence [Gilbulla]… which would enhance, but not overshadow, the grandeur of Camden Park”.

The Macarthur-Onslows, friends of the Walkers, became Sulman’s clients in 1894, when they commissioned Sulman to design two gate lodges for Camden Park, the home of John Macarthur.

Town planning

In 1888, Sulman supported Prime Minister Henry Parkes’s recommendation to erect a grand memorial structure in Sydney to commemorate one hundred years of British settlement. Sulman submitted two designs for a “Centennial Monument” to grace the entrance to Sydney Harbour, depicting symbolic figures of colossal proportions, one a goddess-like figure emerging from the sandstone outcrops of Sydney, casting her benevolent gaze across the harbour.

In 1896, Sulman presented to State Parliament two private bills for a tunnel under the harbour, from North Shore to the city, centring on the thesis that the tunnel connection had become the preferred scheme overseas and, by engineering standards, was far more advanced technologically than any other means of crossing. However, in October 1912, JJC Bradfield’s proposal for a cantilever bridge was accepted by the authorities and was assigned to work exclusively on the project and given the new position of Engineer-in-Charge of Sydney Harbour Bridge and City Transit.

Sulman, undeterred, was determined to put his imprint on the Sydney Harbour Bridge scheme any way he could. On 16 June 1924, Sulman met with the bridge contractors, Sir John Burnet, at his Bedford Square office in London to convince him not to continue the road arch along the width of the bridge. He was obviously successful in that regard.

On 16 June 1924, Sulman met with the bridge contractors, Sir John Burnet, at his Bedford Square office in London to convince him not to continue the road arch along the width of the bridge. He was obviously successful in that regard.

Sulman saw himself as the beau ideal of town planners in Australia; but more so as “a sort of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness” — the saviour to redeem the country from the perils of bad town planning.

The Town Planning Association was officially established at a public meeting held in the vestibule of Sydney Town Hall on 17 October 1913 with Sulman as president.

Immediately, Sulman recommended that buildings of poor character in Macquarie Street should be demolished, the land cleared and resumed for the building of the new Houses of Parliament, the Public Library, the Town Hall, and other Municipal buildings. The Sydney Civic Centre buildings would only be built of the beautifully coloured Pyrmont sandstone. Because Hyde Park Barracks was made of brick, Sulman recommended that it be demolished. The sandstone buildings already in place, such as St Mary’s Cathedral, Registrar General’s Office, the Australian Museum, and Sydney Grammar School would be retained and used as models for building styles (a choice between Gothic and Italian Renaissance).

Sulman recommended that buildings of poor character in Macquarie Street should be demolished, the land cleared and resumed for the building of the new Houses of Parliament, the Public Library, the Town Hall, and other Municipal buildings.

Canberra

Because of his pioneering role in the town planning movement in Australia, it was expected that Sulman’s involvement in the planning process to choose the site for the Federal Capital would be assured. But for unknown reasons, the government overlooked Sulman for the Selection Committee.

The competition to design the Federal Capital was announced on 30 April 1911. Walter Burley Griffin, a comparatively unknown architect, was declared the winner of the competition from 137 entrants.

From the moment of his arrival in Sydney, on 19 August 1913, Griffin was treated with hostility by departmental directors and several ministers of government. On 16 October 1913, Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction with the principal role of supervising all work to be done in Canberra. The position, although impressive on paper, was problematic in practice, complicated by the antagonism from the departmental officers and by almost constant arguments with whom he was required to work.

The strained working relationship between government and Griffin prevailed through the next seven years until his tenuous position of authority was toppled when the Board’s plan, and not his, was accepted by Parliament which approved work to commence onsite at once. It was clear that certain members of the Board were intent on destabilising not only Griffin’s plan but also Griffin himself.

Sulman figured prominently as Griffin’s staunchest ally during these tumultuous times, addressing Parliament to voice his support for Griffin’s plan on several occasions. In 1914, Sulman gave evidence at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, strongly urging the authorities to allow Griffin, as author of the premiated design, “to carry out his own plan in his own way” without any interference.

Sulman figured prominently as Griffin’s staunchest ally during these tumultuous times, addressing Parliament to voice his support for Griffin’s plan on several occasions.

On 2nd January 1921, the Hughes government appointed the Federal Capital Advisory Committee with Sulman as Chairman. Despite Sulman’s earlier support of him, Griffin had come to suspect that Sulman, in accepting the chairmanship of the committee, had become party to the same evils which he strenuously fought against on Griffin’s behalf. Sulman wrote:

I am not accepting any fees for my work which will be onerous, one reason being that I have no wish to profit by a fellow architect’s disappointment. In fact, it means actual loss of money as well as time but I am willing to make the sacrifice if by so doing I can serve the Commonwealth.

And so, in 1921, the Federal Capital Advisory Committee commenced to implement Griffin’s plan for Canberra without the participation of its creator. The Federal Capital Advisory Committee disbanded in 1924.  In June 1924 Sulman specifically went to England to receive his knighthood for the role he performed in the development of Canberra. It was a poorly kept secret that Sulman extracted a tacit agreement from the government that he would accept the honorary position at the FCAC on condition that he would be granted a knighthood for his services.

It was a poorly kept secret that Sulman extracted a tacit agreement from the government that he would accept the honorary position at the FCAC on condition that he would be granted a knighthood for his services.

Last years

In the family archive is a photograph of Sulman, almost camouflaged by the bush on Goat Island. All one can see is his hatted head and coated frame; he shields his eyes from the sun and contemplates the harbour which had preoccupied him through most of his life in Australia. Sydney Harbour had tested and tempted him, particularly on how to conserve its beauty. This “octopus” that had captured his imagination in 1885 had given him so much cause for disappointment, and possibly the worst of all these disappointments was the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge itself.

Sulman’s contribution to Australia is not restricted to architecture but represents all fields of human endeavour through one of the longest presidencies of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales (1919–34), as an educator, at the University of Sydney (1887–1912 and 1919–26), and as president of the Town Planning Association (1913–25). He was for over sixty years a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and one of its oldest members, having been elected an Associate in 1872 and a Fellow in 1883.

During his last days Sulman suffered hallucinations and became violent, at one time hitting out at Annie with clenched fists; he could not recognise his children. Included in the entries in Annie’s diary were several accounts of Sulman’s insistence at wanting to go “home”, and of Annie telling him gently that he was already home. The “home” Sulman possibly meant may have been the home of his birth and childhood. During a stormy day on 18 August 1934, Annie wrote in her diary that “John passed away peacefully” at 2.15 p.m. Sulman’s epitaph on the grey granite slab on Gore Hill bears no testimonial to his great achievements but is simply inscribed: “Sir John Sulman Kt., son of John and Martha Sulman”.

Included in the entries in Annie’s diary were several accounts of Sulman’s insistence at wanting to go “home”, and of Annie telling him gently that he was already home. The “home” Sulman possibly meant may have been the home of his birth and childhood.