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Wilson, William Hardy (1881–1955)

by Richard E. Apperly

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

William Hardy Wilson (1881-1955), architect, was born on 14 February 1881 at Campbelltown, New South Wales, second of four surviving sons of William Joshua Wilson, agent, and his wife Jessie Elizabeth, née Shepherd, both native-born. Living with his parents at Burwood, Billy attended (1893-98) Newington College; he passed the junior public examination, played cricket in the first XI and captained the first Rugby XV. In 1899-1904 he was articled to Harry Kent of Kent & Budden, architects, and attended Sydney Technical College at night; he qualified in 1904 and was president of the Architectural Students' Society. Meanwhile, he had taken lessons from the artist Sydney Long and exhibited water-colours with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1903-04.

Having sailed for England in 1905, Wilson was employed in the office of William Flockhart, architect, of New Bond Street, London, and passed the intermediate and final examinations of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1906, 1908). He joined the Chelsea Arts Club, served as its secretary and made friends with George Lambert and Arthur Streeton. With Stacey Neave, Wilson travelled in Europe and the United States of America where he was attracted by the early architecture of the eastern States and impressed by the colonial revival style.

Back in London, Wilson lived at Chelsea and collected antique furniture and objets d'art. Returning home in 1910, on 22 November he married Margaret Rachel Reid McKenzie (d.1939) at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. By then he was calling himself Hardy. In 1913 he entered practice with Neave in George Street. Determined to make Australians as aware of their early colonial heritage as Americans had become of theirs, Wilson had begun to make drawings of colonial buildings in New South Wales and Tasmania: he 'looked at buildings with a painter's eye as much as an architect's', even noting the plants in their gardens. Finding Julian Ashton 'a beacon of hope in a city of indifference', Wilson exhibited regularly with the Society of Artists; with Ashton, Elioth Gruner and others, he founded the Fine Arts Society, a small commercial gallery. His work was to be included in the 1923 Exhibition of Australian Art at Burlington House, London.

Wilson's architectural commissions consisted almost entirely of houses and small commercial buildings: work at this scale best suited his talents. His admiration of early Australian architecture influenced the design of his houses: two of his best-known were built in Sydney's northern suburbs. The colonial house, Horsley, provided the source of his design for Eryldene, Gordon, completed in 1914 for E. G. Waterhouse. Similarly, Clarendon at Windsor was the model for his home, Purulia, Wahroonga, completed in 1916.

That year Neave joined the army and their office closed. Wilson continued to work at Purulia on his drawings and in 1920 The Cow Pasture Road was published by Art in Australia Ltd. The firm re-opened that year in Spring Street with a new partner John Berry. At a time when Australian domestic architecture was characterized by complexity of shape and detail, Wilson's revival of a simple Australian colonial idiom constituted a significant development. Wilson, Neave & Berry's design (1922) for Peapes & Co. Ltd's menswear store in George Street was a scholarly adaptation of the eighteenth-century English Georgian style to a medium-rise city commercial building.

Wilson contributed to Art in Australia, the Home, Sydney Morning Herald and other journals. His architectural works and writings, with the houses and teaching of Professor Leslie Wilkinson, encouraged many Australian architects in the 1920s and 1930s to adopt a composite idiom of Australian colonial, British Georgian and Mediterranean vernacular influences. Visiting China in 1921, Wilson was greatly impressed by the architecture of Peking and avowed his intention to evolve an architectural style for Australia which would combine the best of the Oriental and Occidental worlds: he designed Celestion, a Chinese-style house that was never built.

In 1922 he finished his drawings of old colonial architecture, sold Purulia and went to England and Europe where he sought the best printmakers and printers. In Athens he wrote the introduction to Old Colonial Architecture in New South Wales and Tasmania (Sydney, 1924); it contained fifty collotype reproductions of his drawings which were executed by Max Jaffe in Vienna. Returning to Sydney in 1925, Wilson became increasingly dissatisfied with the local profession and with the standard of workmanship in the building industry. In 1926 the Commonwealth government purchased his drawings of old colonial architecture for £3000. His 'last effort in the art of architecture' was a small Chinese tea-house erected at Eryldene in 1927; he left the partnership, and travelled through Europe to London where he lived at St John's Wood. In 1929 The Dawn of a New Civilization was published in London: in this autobiographical work Wilson referred to himself in the third person as 'Richard Le Measurer'.

Again returning to Sydney, Wilson moved in 1930 to Melbourne and next year to Flowerdale Farm in north-western Tasmania where he farmed very badly, wrote for the Burnie Advocate and published a fantasy, Yin Yang (1934). In Melbourne again from 1935, he was recommended by the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria in September 1936 to be director, but the government appointed J. S. MacDonald. In 1938 Wilson acquired a property at Wandin, near Mount Dandenong, and on 27 February 1940 at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, married a widow Elsie Rose Hughes MacLean, née McMurtrie; they lived in her home at Kew, Melbourne, when not at Wandin. He was an inveterate walker and sustained his love of birds by keeping poultry.

In his later years Wilson published Collapse of Civilization (1936); Grecian and Chinese Architecture (1937), profusely illustrated with his own drawings and printed on goatskin vellum by Percy Green; the autobiographical Eucalyptus (Wandin, 1941); Instinct (Wandin, 1945); and Atomic Civilization (1949): all were limited editions. Convinced of the supreme importance of the creative artist, Wilson believed that Western society was decadent and materialistic, needing to be revitalized by a fusion of East and West. A mystic, with down-to-earth moments, he reiterated his belief in a unified world civilization. He had presented fifty of his drawings of Grecian and Chinese architecture to the Commonwealth National Library in 1935. In 1954 he gave that library forty-six drawings and plans for a visionary city, redolent of China, to be built at Kurrajong in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales; fourteen of the drawings were published in Kurrajong: Sit-Look-See (Kew, 1954).

Sydney Ure Smith described Wilson as 'exceptionally tall, with a studious head, always with a rather quizzical expression—at times a kindly smile hovered around his mouth. He was an impressive character—dominant, dogmatic at times, appreciative and enthusiastic about the particular idea he was propounding … Extremely impatient … he was quick to make up his mind about a person's character!'. Survived by his wife, and by the son of his first marriage, Wilson died on 16 December 1955 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His portrait by George Henry is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Ure Smith and B. Stevens (eds), Domestic Architecture in Australia (Syd, 1919)
  • National Trust of Australia (New South Wales), William Hardy Wilson, a 20th Century Colonial, 1881-1955, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1980), and for bibliography
  • Home (Sydney), June 1920, p 11, 1 Mar 1922, p 12
  • South West Pacific, no 21, 1949, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May, 14 June 1922, 23, 24 Sept 1936, 6 Oct 1944, 17 Jan 1981
  • R. E. Apperly, Sydney houses 1914-1939 (M.Arch thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard E. Apperly, 'Wilson, William Hardy (1881–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-william-hardy-9147/text16141, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 July 2014.

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

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