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Butler, Walter Richmond (1864–1949)

by George Tibbits

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Walter Richmond Butler (1864-1949), architect, was born on 24 March 1864 at Pensford St Thomas, Somerset, England, fourth son of Henry Butler, farmer, and his wife Mary Yeoman, née Harding. He showed an early talent for sketching and at 15 was articled to Alexander Lauder of Barnstaple. In 1885 W. R. Lethaby encouraged Butler to move to London and work with J. D. Sedding. He was accepted into the arts and crafts and domestic revival circles centred on William Morris and R. N. Shaw, among whom his closest friend was Ernest Gimson (1864-1919). In June 1888 Butler left Sedding's office and sailed for Australia, perhaps at the prompting of the young Melbourne architect Beverley Ussher then visiting London. Three of Butler's brothers and one of his sisters also settled in Australia. On 25 April 1894 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew, Butler married Emilie Millicent Howard.

From 1889 until 1893 Butler was in partnership with Ussher. In 1896 he was joined by George C. Inskip but they parted in 1905 after a dispute with the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects over the conduct of a competition. In 1907-16 he partnered Ernest R. Bradshaw and after World War I he was in practice with his nephew Richard (b.1892) as W. & R. Butler, which briefly included Marcus Martin. In the late 1930s Butler was in partnership with Hugh Pettit, but he retired when Pettit enlisted for World War II.

Butler was rightly considered an architect of great talent, and many of his clients were wealthy pastoralists and businessmen. His country-house designs include Blackwood (1891), near Penshurst, for R. B. Ritchie, Wangarella (1894), near Deniliquin, New South Wales, for Thomas Millear, and Newminster Park (1901), near Camperdown, for A. S. Chirnside. Equally distinguished large houses were designed for the Melbourne suburbs: Warrawee (1906), Toorak, for A. Rutter Clark; Thanes (1907), Kooyong, for F. Wallach; Kamillaroi (1907) for (Baron) Clive Baillieu, and extensions to Edzell (1917) for George Russell, both in St Georges Road, Toorak. These are all fine examples of picturesque gabled houses in the domestic revival genre. Butler was also involved with domestic designs using a modified classical vocabulary, as in his remodelling of Billilla (1905), Brighton, for W. Weatherley, which incorporates panels of flat-leafed foliage. His ardent admiration for R. N. Shaw is reflected in his eclectic works. Butler also regarded himself as a garden architect.

As architect to the diocese of Melbourne from 1895, he designed the extensions to Bishopscourt (1902), East Melbourne. His other church work includes St Albans (1899), Armadale, the Wangaratta Cathedral (1907), and the colourful porch and tower to Christ Church (c.1910), Benalla. For the Union Bank of Australia he designed many branch banks and was also associated with several tall city buildings such as Collins House (1910) and the exceptionally fine Queensland Insurance Building (1911). For Dame Nellie Melba Butler designed the Italianate lodge and gatehouse at Coombe Cottage (1925) at Coldstream.

Butler was of immaculate appearance and had impeccable manners. He was a superb draughtsman and is reputed to have controlled all the designing and detailing in his office. In World War I he suffered a deep personal setback with the death of his only son, and from the 1920s he started to relinquish all but the elite clients to his younger partners. His gradual departure from practice is a moving conclusion to a brilliant career. On visits to London in 1912 and 1929 and perhaps also in 1924, he renewed his friendships with the close associates of his youth. Butler's works included Modern Architectural Design and Healthy Homes, both published in Melbourne in 1902. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died at his home in Toorak on 31 May 1949, and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £11,255.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Journal, July-Sept 1903, Mar 1905, Mar-May 1922
  • Building, Engineering and Mining Journal, 9 Jan 1892
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 June 1949
  • D. H. Alsop, Walter Richmond Butler, Architect (B. Arch. research report, University of Melbourne, 1971)
  • W. R. Butler papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

George Tibbits, 'Butler, Walter Richmond (1864–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/butler-walter-richmond-5451/text9257, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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