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Sir John Sulman (1849–1934)

by Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds

This article was published:

Sir John Sulman (1849-1934), architect, was born on 29 August 1849 at Greenwich, Kent, England, third son of John Sulman, jeweller, and his wife Martha, née Quinton. He was educated at Greenwich Proprietary School and in 1863 passed the Oxford junior examination. After his family moved to Croydon next year, he was articled to Thomas Allom, a London architect; he learned the use of oils and water-colour, and executed perspective drawings for Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Following illness, Sulman resumed work in London in 1868. While articled to H. R. Newton, he attended classes at the Architectural Association and at the Royal Academy of Arts, winning the Pugin travelling scholarship in 1871. An associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1872 (fellow, 1883), Sulman designed the Congregational Church at Caterham, Surrey: the first wedding there was his own, to Sarah Clark Redgate (d.1888) on 15 April 1875. They moved to Bromley, Kent. He lectured on applied art and formed the Nineteenth Century Art Society.

In Italy in 1882 he contracted typhoid at Naples; two years later Sarah showed signs of tuberculosis. Although president elect of the Architectural Association, Sulman sold his practice (which had produced over seventy churches and other buildings) and left with his wife and son for Australia. Reaching Sydney on 13 August 1885, he paid £3000 next year to enter partnership with C. H. E. Blackmann in Sydney. Some months later Blackmann fled the country with a Sydney barmaid, leaving Sulman liable for his debts. From 1889 to 1908 Sulman practised with Joseph Porter Power. Sulman's commissions included The Armidale School (1889), Women's College, University of Sydney (1890-94), and Presbyterian churches at Woollahra (1889), Manly (1889-92) and Randwick (1890). His most important work was the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital at Concord, designed in Federation free classical style.

Always ready to discuss art and architecture, Sulman founded the Palladian Club in 1887 and became an honorary corresponding secretary of the R.I.B.A. He was asked by Aston Webb to 'clean up' the Institute of Architects of New South Wales: Sulman had joined the institute in 1887 and been elected vice-president, but J. Horbury Hunt foiled his attempt to become president; Sulman resigned in 1892 and did not rejoin until 1912 when he was again vice-president. In 1887-1912 he also lectured part time in architecture in the faculty of engineering at the University of Sydney; he visited Britain and the United States of America in 1892 to report on architectural schools.

In 1890 A. B. Smith, minister for public works, had convened a 'secret committee' of six architects (including Hunt, W. L. Vernon and Sulman) to investigate complaints that the colonial architect James Barnet had a monopoly on the design of large, and therefore lucrative, public buildings. They recommended that such work be open to competition. As Barnet was to retire, Smith sought to replace him with Sulman, who declined. In October Sulman formed the Parramatta half-squadron of lancers, but resigned his commission as first lieutenant four years later.

At St Luke's Anglican Church, Burwood, on 27 April 1893 he married Annie Elizabeth Masefield, the childhood companion of (Dame) Eadith Walker. Annie took up photography and published collections of her studies of Australian wildflowers. Sulman again became seriously ill in 1896 and took his family to Europe. Returning next year, he made the cottage he had begun for his parents at Turramurra into a rambling family house, Ingleholme.

A visit to Paris in 1873 had impressed on Sulman the need for town planning. In 1890 his paper, 'The laying-out of towns', delivered to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, advocated the 'spider's web' plan in preference to the grid; he used the motto 'convenience, utility and beauty'; his paper marked the beginning of town planning in Australia as a formal discipline. In 1907 the Daily Telegraph published his series of articles on the need for a plan for Sydney; on eleven occasions he gave evidence before the royal commission for the improvement of the city of Sydney and its suburbs (1908-09). Many of his proposals are evident in Sydney today: the extension of Martin Place, the location of Circular Quay railway station and the widening of Elizabeth, Oxford and William streets (with a tunnel under King's Cross). A bill authorizing Sulman to construct an underground railway connecting Milsons Point and the city had lapsed in 1895. He considered Australia's architectural heritage insignificant and at various times recommended the demolition of Hyde Park Barracks, St James's Church, Darlinghurst gaol, Victoria Barracks and Sydney Hospital.

After retiring from practice in 1908, Sulman held influential positions as director of the Daily Telegraph Newspaper Co. Ltd from 1902 (chairman 1922-25), president of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales (1913-25) and chairman of the Town Planning Advisory Board to the Department of Local Government (1918). At the University of Sydney he endowed a lectureship in aeronautics (in memory of his son Geoffrey killed with the Royal Flying Corps in 1917), and gave the Anzac memorial bursary (1922) and £2500 to encourage the teaching of town planning (1926). He was Vernon memorial lecturer in town planning at the university in 1919-26.

A supporter of Walter Burley Griffin's plan for Canberra, Sulman gave evidence at the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1915. As chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee (1921-24), he nonetheless advocated departures from the Griffin plan wherever he saw fit. Serving without fee, and making repeated journeys to Melbourne and Canberra, Sulman opposed the building of a permanent parliament house (because of lack of funds) and its siting on Capital Hill. Lasting monuments to him in Canberra are his Mediterranean style Civic Centre buildings.

On behalf of the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments, in 1924 Sulman visited Europe and the United States of America to study city plans and systems of local government. He attended the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, and the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Federation conference at Amsterdam. In July he was appointed K.B.E. A trustee from 1899 (president from 1919) of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, he purchased items for it while overseas and organized London representatives. In 1927 he commissioned (for £1000) and donated to the gallery the fourth bas-relief bronze panel for its exterior. He again travelled to Europe in 1930. That year he established the annual Sir John Sulman award for architectural merit in New South Wales.

Sulman died at North Sydney on 18 August 1934 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife, their daughter and two of their sons survived him, as did the son and a daughter Florence of his first marriage. They endowed the Sir John Sulman prize for genre painting or mural decoration. His estate was sworn for probate at £171,615.

Versatile, gifted and energetic, Sulman was forceful and decisive in action and in speech. By turns polished and aggressive, he was seldom deflected from any task. Driven by ambition and a virile ego, he was politically adroit, able to cultivate useful acquaintances to become the central figure of any organization with which he was connected. His taste was essentially conservative (he considered much modern art to be 'awful rubbish'), but his interests ranged from painting to town planning: 'the former seeks art in small framed spaces, the latter in wide, prettily and properly-planned places'. His portrait by John Longstaff was commissioned by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and won the Archibald prize for 1931.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of the Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1909, 5, p 379
  • Australasian Builder and Contractor's News, 24 Mar, 31 July 1888
  • Building, Engineering and Mining, 23, 30 July, 17, 24 Sept 1892, 2 Dec 1893
  • Commonwealth Home, 17 July 1925
  • Salon (Sydney), Sept 1916, p 55
  • Trustees of National Art Gallery of New South Wales, Annual Report, 1931
  • Art in Australia, Nov 1934
  • Cumberland Argus, 23 Oct 1890
  • Sulman papers, 1868-1972 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. H. Hunt papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Reconstruction of the Architect's Branch of the Department of Public Works (State Records New South Wales)
  • Federal Capital Advisory Committee, minutes, 1921-24 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Richard E. Apperly and Peter Reynolds, 'Sulman, Sir John (1849–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1849
London, Middlesex, England


18 August, 1934 (aged 84)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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