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John Horbury Hunt‘s rejected 1880s schemes for the Art Gallery of New South Wales are on view in its library until April 21. Archivist Stephen Miller introduces Sydney’s high-Victorian quest for a suitable monument to art.

Top, centre left and centre right Three rejected schemes by John Horbury Hunt. Above left Walter Liberty Vernon’s accepted design.
The classically elegant Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of Sydney’s most distinctive landmarks. The façade and old wing were built between 1896 and 1909. Architecturally, the Art Gallery reflects 19th century ideas about the cultural role of a gallery as a temple to art and civilizing values. The present building is the work of Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon, who secured the prestigious commission over the less conventional John Horbury Hunt.
Hunt originally had been employed by the gallery when it was decided to move from a temporary wooden structure in the Botanic Gardens to the present site. He erected a building which was nothing more than a series of thick walls with a sawtooth roof, planned to be the foundation of a more substantial building when funds became available. This temporary gallery was universally disliked, denounced in the press by prominent citizens as the “Art Barn.” It would appear that the gallery trustees favoured the idea of a competition for the building. Yet Hunt insisted on his right to finish the gallery. He despised the idea of architectural competitions, where one architect was pitted against another “to see how big a falsehood can be delineated on paper.” Nonetheless, after 10 years of design and funding disputes, Hunt was finally denied the opportunity of completing the gallery. His rejected designs are wildly varied. Sylistic eclecticism characterised much of Hunt’s work. It exposed him to severe criticism, but also allowed for genuine innovation and creativity. His rejected designs for the AGNSW include a heavy Gothic structure with a blind arcade of pointed arches winding around the building, even a Byzantine-Islamic hybrid with Moorish arches and a series of domes.
Seeing these designs, one might agree with Hunt’s biographer, J.M. Freeland, that he could have provided Sydney with one of its “finest as well as most hilarious buildings.” However, Hunt’s concepts were rejected in favour of the present chaste, classical design. This exhibition, which draws on the AGNSW Archive’s extensive collection of architectural plans and drawings, shows the rejected proposals along with interesting correspondence and photographs of the Vernon gallery’s buildings and location.
‘Early Designs for the Art Gallery of New South Wales’, curated by Steven Miller, at the Art Gallery of NSW Research Library and Archive, 7 February-21 April 2000



Published online: 1 Mar 2000


Architecture Australia, March 2000

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