Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Blacket, Edmund Thomas (1817–1883)

by H. G. Woffenden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), by unknown photographer

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12251

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), architect, was born on 25 August 1817 at St Margaret's Hill, Southwark, Surrey, England, son of James Blacket, draper and later merchant, and his wife Margaret Harriet, née Ralph. On leaving Mill Hill Congregational College he entered the family business but after three years rejected a career in trade, moved to Yorkshire and found employment in his brother's mill. Later he joined the Stockton and Darlington Railway Co., trained as an engineer and became incidentally a skilled draftsman and surveyor. As a reward for his success his father gave him money that enabled him to spend a year sketching and recording details of English medieval architecture. On 21 May 1842 he married Sarah Mease at Holy Trinity Church, Wakefield, Yorkshire. Soon afterwards they sailed in the Eden and reached Sydney on 3 November.

Blacket did not record reasons for leaving Britain; according to Miss Gladys Blacket, his marriage was considered injudicious and a condition of his father's reluctant approval was that he should leave the country. Other descendants claim that Blacket emigrated of his own free will. It is said also that shareholders of the Royal Bank of Australia engaged him to investigate the activities of Benjamin Boyd, their representative in the colony. Whatever the circumstances of his departure, he left, if not with his father's blessing, then with a box of sovereigns, a parting token from the Dissenting draper-merchant. Although unproven, it is generally accepted that Blacket carried letters of introduction to Bishop William Grant Broughton and Charles Nicholson. By their influence he was appointed valuator to Bourke ward, Sydney, and inspector of teaching and building in Anglican schools. He assumed the role of architect and after seven years had established a modest practice, had been appointed diocesan architect and won respect for sound work and outstanding knowledge of Gothic styles. In 1849 he succeeded Mortimer Lewis as colonial architect; he held that position until 1854 when he resigned to accept an invitation by the Senate of the University of Sydney to design its first buildings. From that time his practice grew as vigorously as his reputation. Commissions included schools, colleges, banks, hospitals, commercial buildings and domestic work in addition to numerous Anglican churches that were his chief interest. Many local architects, including W. E. Kemp, were trained in his office and others newly arrived in the colony, among them John Horbury Hunt, found employment with him. When his wife died in 1869, Blacket was left with four sons and four daughters, Edith, Alice, Arthur, Marion, Owen, Hilda, Cyril and Horace. In 1880 Cyril joined the firm which was then known as Blacket & Son. Blacket died at his home in Petersham on 9 February 1883.

Cyril, an experienced architect who had travelled in Britain, Western Europe and North America, inherited the practice. Arthur, a surveyor who had no formal training in architecture, became junior partner, and they practised as Blacket Brothers in 1883-85. When sickness forced Cyril's retirement, Arthur not only took over the firm but also executed current works in his own name. He remained active until 1897. After various unproductive ventures in the Nowra district, Cyril returned to Sydney in 1894, became lecturer in architecture at Sydney Technical College, built up a large practice, took part in civic affairs and gave energetic support to the New South Wales Institute of Architects. He died at Manly in 1937.

Edmund Blacket was an upright God-fearing man who shunned controversy, professional publicity and social acclaim. An exemplary husband and father he had been churchwarden and alderman, and was widely respected and admired for honesty, diligence, accuracy, fortitude and propriety. He had achieved an ambition to practise architecture and, above all, he had furnished the colony with many handsome Gothic churches. But Blacket was not a great architect. The mistaken belief that he was both the Wren and the Pugin of Australia, a genius who produced great architecture, arose from the transference of his attributes to his works. He was essentially an archaeological Gothicist, a self-taught architect unable to transcend an antiquarian outlook that handicapped his whole career. His Gothic buildings are assemblages of details culled from copy-books and, as might have been expected, his classical designs follow safe eighteenth-century prescriptions rather than the dangerous freedom of nineteenth-century Romantic Classicism. For the most part Blacket's work lacks invention and imaginative insight: it is too careful and uncommitted. In some examples, interior and exterior are not unified; in others, errors in scale, detail and proportion may be seen as evidence of piecemeal design methods divorced from three-dimensional reality. In large Gothic works especially he exhibited uncertainty in ordering internal spaces. His best work appears in small churches, rectories and other minor buildings where he retained firm control of form, construction and materials, exploiting good craftsmanship to reveal intrinsic qualities of timber, brick and stone.

In the first phase of his career in New South Wales Blacket was dominated by Bishop Broughton, an autocratic High Church Tractarian well informed on ecclesiological advances in Britain that affected church design. His young architect was thus at a professional disadvantage, made acute by obligation, social inferiority and inexperience. Other clerics and influential laymen demanded exact replicas of well-remembered English village churches. Under these pressures Blacket embarked on the completion of Christ Church St Lawrence, Sydney (1843); incorporated the abandoned work at St Andrew's Cathedral into a new design (1847); designed St Mark's, Darling Point, and St Paul's, Redfern (1848), two rustic churches that illustrate piecemeal design; and St Philip's, Sydney (1848), an outstanding highly-wrought exercise in antiquarian exactitude, a splendid town church with a fine interior of good form and detail. St John's, Wollombi (1849) and St Paul's, Carcoar (1845), demonstrate Blacket's excellent command of small-scale architecture.

While serving as colonial architect Blacket withdrew from interfering amateurs. He remained as diocesan architect but treated the bishop, clerics and wealthy laymen with assurance and new-found professional detachment that stemmed from growing respect for his ability and official status. This second stage of his career was unproductive in terms of public buildings and when he resigned his achievements were assessed largely as contributions to routine maintenance and administration.

Meanwhile Broughton had died and his successor, Bishop Frederic Barker, who had no interest in architecture, abhorred Tractarians and ecclesiologists; henceforward Blacket enjoyed greater freedom in church design. In his remaining years he selected Gothic styles in accordance with a conviction that both Early English and Perpendicular modes were each appropriate only in specific types of architecture. The former he thought proper and convenient in small churches, the latter correct in collegiate buildings. As had been foreshadowed at St Mary's, West Maitland (1864), he reserved fourteenth-century Gothic for all but two of the large churches started or completed in New South Wales between 1870 and 1883. Among these are St Paul's, Burwood (1872), St Stephen's, Newtown (1874), All Saints', Woollahra (1874), St Saviour's, Goulburn (1874), and St Peter's, East Maitland (1882). The exceptions are St Thomas's, North Sydney (1881), outstanding among his larger churches, and St Stephen's, Willoughby (1882), both in transitional Romanesque-Early English manner. Other works of note include simple, practical interpretations of Tudor Gothic in rectories such as those at Bega (1856) and Darling Point, Sydney (1858); like St Paul's College, Sydney (1856); these are dignified, honest and discretely picturesque. Retford Hall, formerly at Darling Point (1865), was among the first copy-book attempts at Italianate villa style in Sydney, while the Bank of Australasia's premises in George Street, Sydney (1857), are unequalled among local interpretations of astylar Italian Palazzo manner. Mort's wool store, formerly at Circular Quay, Sydney (1866), David Cohen & Co.'s store at West Maitland (1865), and to a less extent both St John's, Glebe (1868), and St Silas's, Waterloo (1868), all display uncharacteristic ebullience and vigour that may safely be attributed to the influence of John Horbury Hunt, Blacket's assistant at the time. The monumental work at the University of Sydney (1854) is disappointing. Details and form in south and east elevations lack control: both are heavily decorated but timidly articulated. The west elevation, as plain as St Paul's College, is far superior, although the junction of tower and main roof is unhappy. The Great Hall, a reduced version of that at Westminster, is the best part.

Without doubt Edmund Blacket made important contributions to architecture in Australia not only by his works but also by his influence on others. He put tradition before innovation and in doing so rarely committed errors of taste. But for forty years he dominated ecclesiastical architecture in New South Wales to such an extent that the majority accepted church building as an entirely antiquarian endeavour. In consequence stylistic development was severely restricted; quality declined as other less dedicated practitioners exploited popular taste by substituting burlesque plagiarism for scholarly eclecticism; and, not least, attempts at adventurous High Victorian Gothic were almost unknown in the colony until the 1880s.

Select Bibliography

  • M. E. Herman, The Blackets (Syd, 1963)
  • H. G. Woffenden, Architecture in Australia 1840-1900 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1967)
  • E. T. Blacket original drawings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • E. T. Blacket sketch book (University of Sydney Library)
  • E. T. Blacket diaries and original drawings (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. G. Woffenden, 'Blacket, Edmund Thomas (1817–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blacket-edmund-thomas-3005/text4395, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), by unknown photographer

Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12251