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Wilkinson, Leslie (1882–1973)

by Clive Lucas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Leslie Wilkinson (1882-1973), professor of architecture, was born on 12 October 1882 at New Southgate, Middlesex, England, younger son of Edward Henry Wilkinson, commercial clerk, and his wife Ellen, née Barker. A delicate boy, Leslie was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, and at the Royal Academy of Arts' school of architecture in London where he won the silver (1903) and gold (1905) medals; travelling studentships (1904, 1905) allowed him to tour France, Italy and Spain, as well as Britain. Wilkinson was a first-class draftsman, quick and accurate: his student drawings illustrated his immediate enchantment with Mediterranean architecture.

Articled in 1900 to the London architect James S. Gibson, Wilkinson became his assistant in 1903 and worked on commercial and municipal projects. In 1907 he was made an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects; next year he became assistant to Professor F. M. Simpson at University College, London, and was assistant professor in 1910-18. He married Alice Dorothy Ruston (d.1947) at St Stephen's parish church, Ealing, on 11 April 1912.

With the outbreak of World War I, Wilkinson enlisted in the Territorial Force, was commissioned in the University of London Officers' Training Corps in October 1914 and promoted lieutenant in June 1915. He dressed in tailcoat and top hat for his interview in 1918 for the new chair of architecture at the University of Sydney; his application was in the form of an illuminated address; his eminent referees ensured that he easily obtained the post.

Travelling through North America, Wilkinson arrived in Sydney on 19 August to be met by the premier, lord mayor and other dignitaries. Appointed to a chair within the faculty of science, he threw his considerable energy into gaining approval for a faculty of architecture which was created, with himself as dean, in 1920. In the four-year course he emphasized philosophy, theory and practice of design, aesthetics and attractive rendering; subjects included free-hand and water-colour drawing, and the history of architecture.

To Wilkinson, architecture was an art and those who practised it were discriminating gentlemen to whom good manners were all important. His emphasis on the intellectual and artistic over the more mundane aspects of construction and practice sometimes brought him into conflict with other members of the profession. In 1926 the Institute of Architects of New South Wales protested at the weakness of the students' practical knowledge; as a result, Alfred Hook was appointed associate-professor in charge of construction and related scientific fields, while Wilkinson was restricted to architectural design and history. Throughout his thirty years teaching his 'forceful personality' had a profound influence on the school and its graduates.

Appointed university architect in 1919, he did some of his best work as part of his master plan for the university, such as completing Edmund Blacket's Gothic Revival quadrangle. In 1923 Wilkinson incorporated the Italian palazzo façades, removed from the George Street premises of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, into a new chemistry building at the university. He designed the Mediterranean-style physics building (1926), but his finest work often relied on making the best of an established building by opening up vistas and using existing elevations and spaces.

Exceptionally tall (6 ft 5 ins, 196 cm), fair-complexioned and pink-cheeked, with a clipped moustache (and in later life a goatee), the patrician Wilkinson made such pronouncements as 'it is not so important to be in style as to have style'. One of his staff, the cartoonist George Molnar, observed that an 'Olympian peace' surrounded him. Wilkinson had soon come to appreciate the quality of Australia's colonial heritage which, with Mediterranean architecture, became the main influence on his work, both as teacher and practising architect. He disliked modern buildings. His kindred spirits were William Hardy Wilson in Sydney, Walter Bagot in Adelaide and Robin Dods in Brisbane whose work raised the popularity of colonial revival architecture in the 1920s and 1930s.

Retaining the right to private practice, Wilkinson carried out domestic and ecclesiastical commissions. He designed some thirty houses and flats, and altered many more. Greenway, the first home he built (in 1923 for himself), was at once a Mediterranean villa and a colonial Georgian house; in the 1960s he was still designing houses of the same character. His work was always fashionable. Among his important houses are Samuel Hordern's home at Bellevue Hill (1936), Maiala at Warrawee (1937), Greyleaves, Burradoo (1934), and Hazeldean, Cooma (1937). Of his flats, his best is Silchester, Bellevue Hill (1930), a four-storey block in the Mediterranean style. As diocesan architect, he was responsible for a number of Anglican church buildings, among them his skilful completion of Blacket's St Michael's, Vaucluse.

Wilkinson was an artist, more than a conservator: he saw nothing to condemn in his proposal to convert Elizabeth Bay House into flats, or in basing the colours for repainting (1958) Blacket's ceiling in St Matthew's Church, Windsor, on a Capstan cigarette-box which he happened to have in his pocket. He was involved, however, with campaigns to save Burdekin House in the 1930s and Subiaco in the 1960s, and he resigned from the Union Club in 1956 in protest at the members' decision to demolish their William Wardell-designed clubhouse.

A fellow of the I.A.N.S.W. from 1918, Wilkinson was a councillor (from 1921) and president (1933). On the formation of the State chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1934, he became its first president; he was awarded its Sulman medal in 1934 and 1942, and its first gold medal in 1961; that year its housing award was named in his honour. Appointed O.B.E. in 1969, he received an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Sydney in 1970.

Survived by his son and two daughters, Wilkinson died on 20 September 1973 at Vaucluse and was cremated. Judy Cassab's and Norman Carter's portraits of him are held by the University of Sydney; another is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Beiers, Houses of Australia (Syd, 1948)
  • S. Falkiner (ed), Leslie Wilkinson a Practical Idealist (Syd, 1982)
  • Art in Australia, 1919
  • Art and Australia, Sept 1974
  • Architecture in Australia, Dec 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb, 22 Aug 1918, 16 May 1961, 20, 21 Sept 1973
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clive Lucas, 'Wilkinson, Leslie (1882–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilkinson-leslie-9104/text16053, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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