Radical architect: John Horbury Hunt

Canadian born, Boston-trained architect John Horbury Hunt arrived in Sydney in 1863 and for the next 40 years was renowned for the distinctive radical architecture he introduced to Sydney and rural New South Wales. Despite numerous commissions from influential and wealthy clients, Hunt, eccentric, controversial and complex, died in poverty in 1904.

Hunt is now largely forgotten but many of his buildings survive to remind us of his extraordinary talent. To celebrate the life and work of this famous architect, the Museum of Sydney held the striking exhibition: John Horbury Hunt, Radical Architect 1838-1904.

'Hunt brought about a revolution in Australian architecture and was responsible for some of its most powerful and austere landmarks, including the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Rose Bay, St Peter’s Cathedral and the well-known Booloominbah, both at Armidale, and Tivoli at Rose Bay. This 'marine villa’ is still credited with the best gable in Australia. Hunt designed and built cathedrals, churches, chapels, houses, homesteads, stables and schools’, said exhibition curator Joy Hughes.

Hunt’s architecture was twenty years in advance of his peers, some of it unequalled in the world at that time, and sowed the seeds of modern architecture in Australia. Large or small, his buildings have a dramatic presence with their siting, asymmetrical balance, excellent brickwork and quality craftsmanship. Hunt was at the forefront of a worldwide movement where every brick and board was placed for a structural purpose, not for ornamentation.

'One person who saw Hunt’s talent was a remarkable Belgian nun, the Reverend Mother Febronie Vercruysse, who brought the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart to Australia in 1881. She commissioned him to design their convent at Rose Bay. Its chapel is widely recognised as a masterpiece. The interior is structurally breathtaking. The stone vaulted roof was the first of its kind in Australia and has not been surpassed’, said Joy Hughes.

Supervision was no mere chore for Hunt. If an architectural decision was required he would whip up a detailed drawing on the spot. His clothes had special pockets to hold drawing instruments and his hat had a compartment for drawing paper. His bicycle, on which he travelled to Sydney jobs, was fitted with a collapsible drawing board.

As President of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales 1889-1895, Hunt strove to rid the industry of ’jerry builders’ and ’quack architects’, his supreme tactlessness offending the majority of his colleagues. Despite the enmity he attracted, Hunt incorporated the Institute, introduced a new Code of Conduct and raised the profile of the profession.

Hunt was equally passionate about the welfare of animals and became a strong supporter of the Animals’ Protection Society. Although slightly built, Sydney’s cab drivers were afraid of him. If he saw a cabbie beating a horse Hunt was liable to grab the whip and beat the man. Hunt and his wife’s pony, cats, dogs and geese are buried with them in their vault at the South Head Cemetery.

'This exhibition certainly paid tribute to this unusual man’, said Joy Hughes. Research has unearthed previously unidentified buildings by John Horbury Hunt and new information about the known ones. As well as displaying around 200 archival and contemporary photographs of his buildings, the exhibition included some of his original drawings, specifications and architectural scrapbooks and gave the public an insight into this eccentric talented man.

Past exhibition

  • 17 August 2002 - 1 December 2002