News

Wilkinson's European sketches and University legacy


25 May 2006

Leslie Wilkinson- appointed first professor of architecture in 1918 and University Architect the following year- filled fourteen sketchbooks with architectural drawings and watercolours during his grand tour of Europe in 1906, several of which are now showing in the University Art Gallery.

Leslie Wilkinson's Orvieto Cathedral interior (1906), private collection. © The artist's estate
Leslie Wilkinson's Orvieto Cathedral interior (1906), private collection. © The artist's estate

He had studied art as well as architecture in England, and his first ambition had been to be a painter. Whether of St Trophime in Arles, the Villa Giulia in Rome, or Plaza Mayor, Madrid, his beautifully executed and sometimes quite lyrical drawings and watercolours on display evidence a strong artistic eye as well as skilled draughtsmanship.

In establishing the University's school of architecture, Wilkinson implemented his strong ideas about the role an art course should play in the education of an architect - a philosophy which continues to be part of the current teaching.

After the Gothic Revival architect Edmund Blacket, Wilkinson left the biggest architectural imprint on the University, and his Mediterranean tour did have a profound effect -according to Trevor Howells, senior lecturer in heritage conservation, and guest speaker at the exhibition's launch last month.

"Wilkinson drew superbly but he also looked, saw and assimilated the buildings and their details that he recorded," Mr Howells said.

While Wilkinson did complete the Quad in its existent Gothic style, adding the western and northern wings, it was "his own Gothic, a chaste Gothic whose bones are distinctly Classical and suitably controlled and regular," Mr Howells said.

In a more Classical mode, Wilkinson's careful drawings of the West Door of St Trophime in the South of France was probably the

Leslie Wilkinson's, San Miniato, Florence (1906), private collection, © the artist's estate
Leslie Wilkinson's, San Miniato, Florence (1906), private collection, © the artist's estate

main inspiration for the central entrance portico of the Physics Building which Mr Howells sees as "Wilkinson's undoubted masterpiece, the major University building in his so-called Mediterranean style".

A photo of the PhysicsBuilding -with its frieze of famous scientists' names and Ionic columns -is included in the exhibition, along with other photos of Wilkinson's University architecture, to demonstrate how his European studies influenced his design.

The University Art Gallery space itself, "one of Wilkinson's more delightful, if small buildings", owed a debt of gratitude to Venice's Bridge of Sighs, Mr Howells said.

Another of Wilkinson's great creations was the Vice Chancellor's Garden, a collaborative undertaking with then professor of German, E G Waterhouse, the builder of Eryldene, a world authority on camellias and a remarkable garden and landscape designer.

"Together their collaboration produced the finest landscaped area of the University," Mr Howells said- down to the cast cement planter tubs.

On a quirkier note, the kookaburra and kangaroo gargoyles on the northern range covering the Macleay Building were also Wilkinson's. So too was the decorative boss representing the Faculty of Economics - a string bag full of money, said to have "sent the then Professor into a ballistic fit of rage".

Wilkinson designed iconic works throughout Sydney and w

Wilkinson's St Sernin, Toulouse (1906), private collection, © the artist's estate
Wilkinson's St Sernin, Toulouse (1906), private collection, © the artist's estate

as awarded an OBE in 1969 for contributions in the architectural field.

"He was a traditionalist who saw the Mediterranean architectural traditions fused with those of early Australian Colonial architecture as a suitable and appropriate voice in which we could and should build," Mr Howells said.

"For this Wilkinson was not only a visionary but also a forerunner of more recent developments in Australian architecture, some of which are now under construction on campus."

Leslie Wilkinson in Europe 1904-1906 was curated by outgoing senior curator of the University Art Gallery, Sioux Garside who, with her own sketchbooks, is about to follow in Wilkinson's footsteps through Italy and the South of France.

The exhibition is showing at theUniversity Art Gallery in the Quadrangle until 30 June.

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