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James Johnstone Barnet (1827–1904)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904), architect, was born at Almericlose, Arbroath, Scotland, son of Thomas Barnet, builder, and his wife Mary, née McKay. After education at the local high school he went to London in 1843 and was apprenticed to a builder. He then studied drawing and design under W. Dyce, R.A. and architecture with C. J. Richardson, F.R.I.B.A., and became clerk of works to the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. On 22 July 1854 he married Amy, daughter of John and Elizabeth Gosling; they sailed for Sydney and arrived in December. He engaged in building operations before he became clerk of works at the University of Sydney. In 1860 he joined the Colonial Architect's Office; two years later he became its acting head and in 1865 colonial architect; he held the position until 1890 when the office was reorganized.

Barnet was responsible for the building of defence works at Port Jackson, Botany Bay and Newcastle, court-houses, lock-ups, police stations and post offices throughout New South Wales and several lighthouses including the Macquarie Lighthouse on South Head, which replaced an earlier one designed by Francis Greenway. In Sydney he designed and supervised the construction of several important public buildings: a new wing to the Australian Museum, the General Post Office, Colonial Secretary's Office, Public Works and Lands Buildings, Customs House, Public Library, the Medical School at the University of Sydney and the Callan Park Lunatic Asylum. He was also responsible for additions to the Tarban Creek Asylum and the maintenance of other public buildings. The total cost of public works carried out or in progress under his direction to 1881 was £3,598,568 for 1490 projects.

When the Duke of Edinburgh visited Sydney in 1868 Barnet was given charge of arrangements for the royal reception and in 1879 was responsible for the design and erection of the Sydney International Exhibition building on five acres of the Botanical Gardens. The design was prepared and the work completed in nine months with the aid of night shifts using the first electric light in Sydney. Preparation of 412 drawings and of all accounts and payment of moneys as well as oversight of the work were part of Barnet's responsibility. Whilst the work was in progress he was continually attacked in parliament and in the press. As an indication of its censure parliament disallowed his forage allowance in 1879. A sum of £50,000 had been voted for the project but the final cost was £184,570. Barnet explained the increased cost as the result of hurried planning and the use of more durable material than originally intended. The building 'took the public taste' and when the exhibition ended he was paid a gratuity of £500, an amount he considered totally inadequate.

The new wing for the Australian Museum was intended for a museum of natural history and a sculpture gallery. In 1873 the management of Gerard Krefft as curator was considered by the trustees to be highly unsatisfactory and on 24 February 1874 a select committee of the Legislative Assembly was appointed to investigate. Despite Barnet's denials it reported that the old building was satisfactory although in poor repair, but the new wing was 'extremely defective' with 'abundant evidence of the architect's desire to subordinate utility to ornament'; in no circumstances should the colonial architect be permitted to continue his mistakes in the uncompleted work. In spite of the committee's findings Barnet was soon acclaimed as an architect of skill and imagination. On 1 September at the official opening of the General Post Office the postmaster-general, (Sir) Saul Samuel, paid a glowing tribute to his work. The first contracts for the foundation and basement had been let in February 1866 but were delayed by negotiations for extending the site and the needs of urgent defence work. To make the most of the narrow site an extra storey was added, mezzanine galleries were built above the ground floor and the main building extended over an arcade built above the footpath. Pyrmont sandstone, in blocks 'of a magnitude never before attempted in these colonies', was used and fireproof concrete 'of original composition' formed the vaulted dome ceilings.

For decoration of the Pitt Street frontage Barnet planned carvings which would portray selected arts, sciences, and customs of the day. In 1883 these came under criticism from the postmaster-general, William Trickett. The inevitable board of inquiry commended Barnet's intention but complained that the carvings were not a faithful record, approaching 'far more to the unnatural and burlesque than … to the real', an opinion which made Barnet doubt the artistic taste of his judges. The subject was dropped although occasional notices in the press referred to the entertainment of visitors by the 'grotesque' carvings.

In addition to other official duties, Barnet sat on the commission set up in 1870 to plan the colony's defence. More defence works were recommended for Port Jackson and Barnet was directed to build new batteries and barracks. His work, without 'any technical professional aid', was highly praised by Sir William Jervois and (Sir) Peter Scratchley in 1877. On 16 July 1889 the defence work was removed from Barnet's control and a military works branch of the Public Works Department was created with Lieutenant-Colonel F. R. de Wolski as director. The earlier close relationship between the military and Barnet deteriorated rapidly, partly because of de Wolski's outspoken condemnation of Barnet's ability and partly because of his persistence on tactical delay in handing over plans and documents for defence work. For some time work at Bare Island battery, Botany Bay, had been criticized and rumours of incompetence and dishonest workmanship persisted. On 1 July 1890 a royal commission was appointed to investigate the letting of contracts and to report on the work already completed. The commissioners found that much of the construction was below standard: the colonial architect's supervision had not been adequate, specifications were altered without approval and expenditure insufficiently controlled. Barnet's evidence contradicted that of his subordinates which the commission accepted more readily than his own. Whatever deficiencies had occurred, and there were plenty, were Barnet's sole responsibility; he was found guilty of gross indifference towards his duties and of insubordination to the minister for public works.

Although the minister saved Barnet from further punishment, the commission's censure was a regrettable end to a distinguished career. For his part Barnet thought that the commissioners' report was an 'unseemly, cruel, and spiteful exhibition of silly persecution and injustice' and believed that he could have made a satisfactory explanation if given the opportunity; he was also convinced that the commission had been influenced by de Wolski who by invitation had attended many of its meetings and been permitted to comment on the evidence.

In his architectural work Barnet had been strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, but some of his buildings were on poor sites. He had no sympathy for new styles of architecture which were becoming fashionable in Sydney at the end of the century and tended to ape American trends. He was equally critical of domestic architecture cluttered with useless ornamentation and 'surmounted with blazing red tiles from France'. As colonial architect for twenty-five years he had an important influence on colonial architecture; his public buildings were well built and well designed and stood as a memorial to his ability. References to his work are sprinkled throughout the Sydney Morning Herald in 1863-1904. In 1899 he published Architectural Work in Sydney, New South Wales, 1788-1899.

Barnet died on 16 December 1904 and was buried in the Presbyterian section at Rookwood cemetery where his wife had been interred about 1890. He was survived by four daughters and three sons, two of whom practised their father's profession.

Select Bibliography

  • D. I. McDonald, ‘James Barnet: Colonial Architect, 1865-1890 "A Most Meritorous Public Officer"’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 55, part 2, June 1969, pp 124-40.

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Barnet, James Johnstone (1827–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Barnet, c1888

James Barnet, c1888

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23182639

Life Summary [details]


Arbroath, Forfarshire, Scotland


16 December, 1904 (aged ~ 77)
Forest Lodge, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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