Quadrangle gargoyle tour

Image of gargolyes on the Quadrangle

First-time visitors to the Quadrangle of the University of Sydney are often surprised by the neo-Gothic architecture, and in particular by the gargoyles high on the walls, especially those around the Clocktower on the eastern side.

But look a bit closer next time. For a building so deliberately designed to replicate the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxbridge, there is a surprising number of references to local flora and fauna. Gargoyles are commonly associated with medieval gothic architecture in which fantastical, mythical, ghastly or eerie stone-carved creatures serve as a waterspout or a drain from a building; water passing through the mouth of the carved creature. The word ‘gargoyle’ originates from the French gargouille, meaning throat. While most commonly depicting fantastic creatures, real animals were incorporated into the repertoire of stonemasons from the 12th century.

In architectural terminology, non-functional and purely decorative carved creatures were called ‘grotesques’. Most of the creatures on the Quadrangle are technically grotesques, but today the word gargoyle is used interchangeably for both carvings, and so it is at the University of Sydney.

Medieval superstition held that gargoyles also frightened away evil spirits. The most famous gargoyles are those adorning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but they were a regular feature on many other medieval religious and institutional buildings. The revival of Gothic architecture in Victorian times saw the gargoyle reappear; particularly on buildings attempting to create a sense of age and tradition.

In the late 1850s as construction was taking place on the Quadrangle’s eastern range, the Clocktower and the Great Hall, stonemasons working under the direction of colonial architect Edmund Thomas Blacket carved the gargoyles on the front lawn before erecting them into place high on the Clocktower. Three masons were known to have worked on the decorative carvings: Edwin Colley, James Barnett and master carver Joseph Popplewell.

If certain accountants had had their way, the gargoyles might never have even existed. In 1859, a Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly was established to enquire into the University’s expenditure. There was apparently some derision at “griffins, unicorns or other monstrous shapes” being added to the building, with one committee member wondering how the features would “serve to develop a high type of architectural taste”. Fortunately the gargoyles survived the budget.

If you stand in front of the Clocktower today and look up, you will see not just a series of mythical creatures, but other animals such as a dog, ram and monkey. The eagle-eyed will also spot something you won’t find on Notre Dame – the world’s first kangaroo-shaped gargoyle (pictured).

Located on the base of the north-easternmost turret, the kangaroo stands with his ears high. He has rightly become famous among those who know he is there, even if he has been humorously described on one blog as looking “like Skippy at the end of a three-day ice binge”. The kangaroo is not the only local to adorn the building. A crocodile is visible on the interior side of the Clocktower, while a pair of kookaburras sit above the external entrance of the northern staircase foyer.

Blacket and his stonemasons were obviously intent on adding a local flavour to the English atmosphere they were creating. In similar spirit, when the Macleay Building was extended by architect Leslie Wilkinson in 1923, a kangaroo and a kookaburra were incorporated into the Gothic façade which overlooks the Botany Lawn.

The kangaroos, crocodile, and kookaburras demonstrate that even at the height of British imperialism and the deliberate recreation of an ‘oxbridge’ atmosphere in the southern hemisphere, there was still an attempt to ground the new building within its Australian environment.

Dr Craig Barker is Manager of Education and Public Programs at Sydney University Museums.