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Harold Desbrowe Annear (1865–1933)

by George Tibbits

This article was published:

Harold Desbrowe Annear (1865-1933), architect, was born on 16 August 1865 at Happy Valley, Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of James Desbrowe Annear, miner, and his second wife Eliza Ann, née Hawkins. Annear had six much older stepsisters, two sisters and a brother alive when his father died in 1883. He was educated at the Hawthorn Grammar School. In 1883 he was articled to the architect William Salway (d.1903) who had arrived in Victoria in 1854 and served articles with J. Reed. Salway had toured Asia, worked in China in 1868-75, and after returning to Melbourne in 1876 had built up an extensive practice.

About 1889 Annear left Salway to set up on his own. His talents were already recognized within the profession: he had received awards for sketches published in building journals and for an illustrated essay on English Gothic architecture. His papers on John Ruskin (1889) and on methods of architectural criticism (1893), delivered before the Victorian Institute of Architects, were later published in Melbourne and show him to be a staunch admirer of Ruskin and the American H. H. Richardson, whom he called 'the greatest modern architectural genius'. They also reveal his deep commitment to the arts and crafts movement and to the concept that architecture is an art, not a profession.

In 1900 Annear became a foundation member and first president of the T-Square Club, which was centred on the Working Men's College and embraced artists, craftsmen and architects. In 1903 he outlined the club's orientation in an address which was later published: 'Now the fellowship of this trinity is considered valuable, in order that the artist might be more architectural, that the architect might be more artistic, and that both might be better craftsmen'. He held doggedly to these views and never joined the professionally oriented Institute of Architects. In practice his opinions were expressed in designs which were often praised for bringing artist, architect and craftsmen together.

Annear's earliest designs were in an adapted American-Romanesque manner. However, he also worked in a variety of modern styles; his most distinctive early design, possibly influenced by the Viennese Sezession style, was the Springthorpe memorial in the Kew cemetery (1897), described by the Argus in 1933 as 'the most beautiful work of its kind in Australia'. In his own words he was a 'developed specialist'—that is 'a man who finds, after diligent study and much experience of architectural history, that the best expression of his work is obtained when he designs in the style with which he is in thorough artistic sympathy'.

In 1902-03 Annear planned three houses for which he is best known: 32, 34 and 38 The Eyrie, Eaglemont. These were free and decorative adaptations of a half-timbered, roughcast, and Marseilles tiles genre called, in Victoria, Queen Anne style. They were planned so that one space could freely flow into another, with built-in cupboards and distinctive, vertically sliding windows. His own house, 32, contained his monogram, derived from Dürer's, in stained glass. He persisted with the half-timbered and roughcast designs into the 1920s but from about 1910 also contrived a related form of expression: a gabled house with half-timbering applied only as an abstracted pattern in the upper parts of gable-ends. In this manner he designed a house for the artist Norman Macgeorge at Alphington (1910) where the garden was laid out by Blamire Young. Another example was a house at 4 Como Avenue, South Yarra (c.1920-25). For his two distinctive designs, Broceliande (also known as Troon) at 224 Orrong Road, Toorak (1918, demolished), and Inglesby at 97 Caroline Street, South Yarra (1919, demolished), Annear has been incorrectly type-cast as a proto-functionalist and a forerunner of the International Style in Melbourne. His writings, the variety of his architectural designs, and his commitment to architecture as an art, all contradict that interpretation. Both Broceliande and Inglesby indicated the influence on him of the West Coast of America and the Spanish Mission Revival, and his continuing desire to create an Australian architecture by adapting that of countries climatically and geographically related to southern Australia.

While much of Annear's work resulted either from commissions by fellow artists or from wealthy clients, he expressed his desire for a universal Australian domestic architecture through a publication, For Every Man his Home, edited by him in 1922, which included modest villa designs featuring open-air rooms, American West Coast bungalow forms and rough-cast walls. His other writings include a chapter in Domestic Architecture in Australia. Although he was chiefly a designer of houses, a major work outside the field of domestic architecture was the reconstruction of Menzies Hotel, while his most novel design was a triumphal arch over Princes Bridge for the visit to Melbourne of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1901. He also designed the Elwood Beach kiosk (1920, demolished).

After World War I, Annear prepared several fine, simple designs which freely used the classical vocabulary. Notable among these are the graceful Church Street bridge, Richmond (1924), and Cloyne at 609 Toorak Road (1929), which has a jewel-like quality and is unified by the judicious repetition of a Venetian window motif. Such excellent buildings as Cloyne have unjustly been presented as an embarrassment by some of Annear's later admirers, but he believed those who argued for a utilitarian architecture were asking for a non-architecture: they 'did not know definitely what architecture consists of'. In fact he pursued throughout a tempered eclecticism.

For many years Annear was an instructor in architecture and drawing at the Working Men's College. In World War I he was involved in Red Cross work and organized street decorations for button days. He also influenced the selection of the site for the Shrine of Remembrance. He was a foundation member and supporter of the Arts and Crafts Society, an authority on and collector of antique furniture and objets d'art, and a skilled designer of furniture. Stout and jaunty, with a round, smooth, rosy face, Annear usually wore a monocle. To Joan Lindsay he was 'what is known as a “character”, and [he] gloried in it'. She describes him in middle age as a devotee of good living, who 'loved to play host in his studio cottage in South Yarra where he dispensed hospitality in true eighteenth century style … He was so witty so indiscreet and so truly loved beautiful things that only the most strait-laced clients objected to his eccentricities and occasional full-blooded lapses into vulgarity … In all things he was rococo, standing for a touch of fantasy in suburbia'.

On 25 July 1891 at Carlton registry office he had married Florence Susan Chadwick, but by World War I his irascible artistic temperament had led to his wife's estrangement. He had diabetes for some years but died of hypertensive heart disease on 22 June 1933 at St Kilda, and was cremated. He was survived by two sons and by his wife to whom he left his estate valued for probate at £348.

Select Bibliography

  • S. U. Smith and B. Stevens (eds), Domestic Architecture in Australia (Syd, 1919)
  • R. Boyd, Victorian Modern (Melb, 1947), and Australia's Home (Melb, 1952)
  • G. Woodful, ‘Harold Desbrowe Annear …’, Architecture in Australia, Feb 1967
  • Australian Builder and Contractors' News, Jan 1888, June 1894
  • Building and Engineering Journal, July 1893
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 July 1925
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 June 1933.

Citation details

George Tibbits, 'Annear, Harold Desbrowe (1865–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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