India drawing by Hardy Wilson

Hardy Wilson (1881-1955), India, 1951, pencil and French crayon, nla.pic-an2812810

William Hardy Wilson, or Hardy Wilson as he styled himself, is best known for his wonderful series of drawings of Australian colonial architecture undertaken at the beginning of his career, and for his increasingly ‘visionary’ statements about the future of humanity towards the end of his life. Born in 1881, he trained as an architect in Sydney , before pursuing his career and aesthetic education in London with time spent touring Europe and North America.

His return to Sydney in 1910 filled him with horror at the unimaginative and inappropriate building styles. Only a renewed awareness of beauty, he felt, would stimulate the creativity so clearly lacking. He began his studies of Colonial architecture to reawaken an interest in Australia ’s heritage, in part to preserve it from further loss, and to reveal the qualities of the past that might enrich modern practice. The inspiration he gained from the past was crystallized in a number of the houses he designed, in particular Eryldene and in his own house, Purulia, completed in 1916.

It was while contemplating the roofline of Purulia that Wilson made a discovery that would change the direction of his work. He became dissatisfied with the way the straight, Western line of the roof appeared to fall unchecked towards the ground, with nothing to ‘hold the eye’ on its downward journey. Only Oriental, and particularly Chinese architecture avoided this fault, with the upward turning hips appearing to ‘smile’ at the corners. Wilson discerned a Chinese influence in the circular forms and strongly horizontal lines of many Colonial buildings, an influence derived from the soil, an ‘instinctive osmosis’ due to geographic proximity rather than any direct contact with Chinese culture. It became Wilson ’s mission to create a synthesis between East and West, not just in architecture, but in art and philosophy too.

In 1921, after an arduous and dangerous journey, William Hardy Wilson arrived at Beijing to discover a ‘miracle of loveliness in the sun-scorched plain, shimmering in all the dust and golden glory of a late summer’s afternoon’. He began a survey of the most beautiful buildings, doorways and walls, taking photographs and making sketches which were later worked up into finished drawings. He consulted scholars and artists, took lessons in brushwork (which left him utterly dissatisfied with his own watercolour technique) and developed a passion for Chinese art and calligraphy. The proliferation of European buildings in Guangzhou ( Canton ) struck him as particularly disagreeable, but in the architecture of Macao he found an ideal mixture of East and West.

Wilson returned to Sydney in November 1921, but felt he must first complete his Colonial series and a study of ancient Greek architecture before he could allow himself to work on new designs. Between 1922 and 1925 he travelled to China , Sicily , Greece and Italy , producing two further groups of drawings published in his Grecian and Chinese Architecture (1937). Hardy Wilson presented the fifty drawings that illustrate this book to the National Library in 1935, where they joined his collection of 50 drawings of Australian Colonial architecture purchased in 1926. The National Library now holds over 250 paintings and drawings by Wilson .

With the exception of the Tennis Pavilion at Eryldene, Wilson’s synthesis of East and West was realized on paper only. His plans for Celestion, the house he hoped to build for himself, and for his ideal city Kurrajong were placed with the National Library in 1954, the year before his death. It was his hope that someday a young architect might use them.

Michelle Hetherington
Pictures Branch