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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fowell, Joseph Charles (1891–1970)

by Pamela Martin and Peter Reynolds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Joseph Charles Fowell (1891-1970), architect, is said to have been born on 2 August 1891 at Albany, Western Australia, son of Charles Wellesley Fowell, sometime clergyman of the Church of England, and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Pemberton. Joseph was educated in England at the Dominican Preparatory and Fauconberge Grammar schools, Beccles, Suffolk; his boyhood interests included oil-painting and sailing. At Beccles he was articled to an architect F. E. Banham, but completed his training in London with Travers & Mileham. As an assistant with Gibson, Skipworth & Gordon (later with Atkinson & Alexander and others) he helped to design banks and country houses. In 1914 he became an associate (fellow 1930) of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

On the outbreak of World War I, Fowell was refused entry to the navy (having lost the use of one eye); through persistence, he was eventually commissioned in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 20 December 1915. He served with the Auxiliary Motor Boat Patrol in the English Channel, the North Sea and the Mediterranean. On 14 August 1919 at the Servite Church, Kensington, London, he married with Catholic rites 39-year-old Ettie Spong Horne (d.1939).

They came to Sydney late in 1919. Fowell worked as first-assistant in the private practice of Professor Leslie Wilkinson with whom he formed an enduring friendship. In 1926 Fowell became an assistant to H. E. Budden. Kenneth McConnel and Fowell (partners 1928-39) won a competition in 1928 to design B.M.A. House (1933 bronze medal, R.I.B.A.). Their joint design for St Anne's Shrine, Bondi, received the 1935 Sulman award. Fowell was primarily responsible for the design of over forty churches in New South Wales and Victoria, including Catholic churches at North Sydney (1937), Parkes (1939) and Neutral Bay (1941). In enlarging (1934) St Charles's Church, Ryde, he was credited with the first significant architectural expression of Catholic liturgical change. He planned the altar to be free-standing, to join the congregation with the celebrant. His design (1941) for St Philip Neri's, Northbridge, was a further step in liturgical change and influenced later architects. Not content to leave details to others, he designed and supervised the execution of furnishings, sacred vessels and ornaments, and collaborated with sculptors, painters and stained-glass craftsmen.

At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Neutral Bay, on 8 December 1939 Fowell married Eileen Stella Hunt. A fellow (1931) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, he was vice-president (1941-42 and 1946-47) of the New South Wales chapter and was to receive its gold medal in 1962. Intermittently, he was also a member of the Board of Architects. In 1950 he was a founder of the Blake prize for religious art and was subsequently life president of the Blake Society. Continuing his leadership in design, Fowell remained senior partner of the firm, which was joined by J. L. S. Mansfield (1939), D. C. B. Maclurcan (1946) and O. R. Jarvis (1962); one unusual commission from 1946 involved refitting passenger ships released by the navy. In the 1960s the firm completed large projects such as the Sydney County Council building (1960), and the Gladesville and Tarban Creek bridges (R.A.I.A. civic design award, 1965).

An accomplished draftsman with a fine feeling for line and colour, Fowell studied life drawing under Desiderius Orban in the 1950s. Four of Fowell's water colours, painted in the Mediterranean during World War I, were accepted by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. He was reserved, astute and introspective. His assistants remembered his white hair, his kindness, and his soft-pencil sketches—smudged with cigarette ash—over their drawings. Survived by his wife and the son of his first marriage, he died on 3 July 1970 at his Bayview home and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Fowell, Mansfield, Jarvis & Maclurcan, History of the Firm (Syd, 1960)
  • N. Fowell, The Sirius Letters, N. Irvine ed (Syd, 1988)
  • Architecture in Australia, 1 Jan 1928, p 6, 1 Sept 1936, p 212, Aug 1970, p 609
  • Building (Sydney), 12 Mar 1928, p 43, 24 Aug 1939, p 35, 24 Apr 1941, p 18, 24 Dec 1942
  • Building Materials and Equipment, Aug-Sept 1968, p 45
  • P. Martin, Fowell, Mansfield, Jarvis & Maclurcan, 1929-1970 (B.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1988)
  • J. C. Fowell documents (held by Fowell, Mansfield, Jarvis & Maclurcan Partnership Pty Ltd, St Leonards, Sydney)
  • N. D. Fowell (compiler), family history (manuscript, privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Pamela Martin and Peter Reynolds, 'Fowell, Joseph Charles (1891–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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