Scottish born James Barnet was the Colonial Architect of New South Wales from 1862 to 1890. Under his guidance, the architectural and civic landscape of the state changed and developed a confidence and character that is still evident today. These were boom years for the colony with the upgrade and replacement of early infrastructure as well as new buildings to meet the demands of a growing population.
The length of tenure contributed to the sheer volume of buildings that were designed and constructed during these years. Many public buildings remain with alterations and in some instances perform a different purpose to their initial intention. But there is a style to these buildings which, once recognised, can be found in various city suburbs as well as many towns in regional parts of the state.
Barnet was a classical, revivalist architect. Born in Scotland, he trained as a builder and stonemason before attending night school in London in order to attain his qualifications as an architect. Encouraged by a mentor, Barnet decided to migrate to one of the colonial outposts as there was an oversupply of architects in England at the time. In 1854 he migrated to Sydney with his wife, Amy.
Similar to Scottish bridge-builder Lennox decades before, Barnet’s potential was recognised whilst he was working on a building site as a stonemason. After a series of commissions he joined the Colonial Architect’s Office in 1860. Two years later he was acting in the position of Colonial Architect, a position he held until 1890.
The scope of work was wide and the quantity of buildings constructed was considerable. This included 169 post offices, 130 court houses, 110 goals and lockups, 155 police stations, 20 lighthouses, an extension to the Australian Museum, the Colonial Secretary’s Office and the Lands Department building. These examples provide an insight into what was of importance at the time: communication, justice, transport and administration. Military defence and naval infrastructure were included in Barnet’s remit, along with the maintenance of other public buildings.
Barnet also designed the psychiatric hospital at Callan Park which opened in 1883 as the Hospital for the Insane. It consisted of 20 neoclassical buildings for the care of over 600 patients, male and female. The design was influenced by theories of the time which recommended high ceilings in a park like atmosphere.
One of Barnet’s most extravagant buildings was short-lived: the Sydney International Exhibition Building. Located adjacent to the Sydney Botanical Gardens on 5 acres, it was constructed in the spirit of the international exhibitions of the northern hemisphere and when complete was the largest exhibition space in the southern hemisphere – Melbourne was also striving for this title. The first electric light in Sydney was used to speed the building’s completion as work continued around the clock. Over a million people came to the ‘Garden Palace’ to see the exhibition, quite amazing as the population at the time was just over two million. The building cost over three times its initial estimate and unfortunately was destroyed in a huge fire. Only a set of gates remain, located in Macquarie Street opposite History House.
Over his long career, Barnet served 16 ministers and oversaw the construction of over a thousand buildings. Despite similarities between buildings, templates as such were not used. Local materials and resources were used where possible. There were various parliamentary enquiries during his career and when he was finally forced to resign it was an ignominious professional end. Barnet was the last Colonial Architect as the office was restructured following his departure.
Many of his buildings remain today and as I travel about I like to keep an eye out for Barnet’s touch in public buildings as I go.
- Inspired by an excellent talk given by Emeritus Professor Don Napper.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on James Johnstone Barnet.
- There is an extensive post about the prolific buildings designed by Barnet, particularly across the central west of NSW here.
[Photo: detail from Dubbo Court House]