State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 86 December 2010


Andrew Dodd
J. J. Clark: child prodigy architect and his winning but ill-fated design for a Free Public Library in Sydney

THERE ARE SOME architectural drawings in the collection of the State Library of Victoria that seem distinctly out of place. When you come across them you find yourself asking why they are held in Melbourne and not in Sydney where they might logically belong. This reaction is understandable given the drawings comprise the winning design for Sydney's Free Public Library, the precursor to the present State Library of New South Wales.
The drawings document a Renaissance-inspired design for a sumptuous building. It is immediately apparent that if the library they represent was ever constructed, it no longer exists. Despite this, the pictures should really be New South Wales state treasures. Instead, they are incidental additions in a larger collection of the work of a prolific but under-recognised Melbourne architect.
There is no reference to the drawings in the permanent exhibit in the Mitchell Library which details the State Library of New South Wales' architectural evolution. There is no reference to them, or the competition for which they were drawn, in the official history of the New South Wales library.1 Even the book chronicling the early buildings of what became the State Library of New South Wales is silent.2
This is strange because the drawings have a great story to tell. They highlight how the cultural development of Australia's two largest cities was out of step. This is a polite way of saying they prove Melbourne was well ahead of Sydney when it came to the establishment of a free public library. They also throw up an early, and sometimes farcical example of inter-colonial rivalry, while at the same time revealing an interesting connection between the two state libraries.
This story can be broken into its component parts because it is in fact about three things:
The architect who conceived the design,
The actual drawings, and
The proposal to build Sydney's first public library. As we will see, each tells us a great deal about the others.

The Architect

The signature on the drawings is that of John James Clark. From this we can tell a little, but certainly not everything about the origins of the design. J. J. Clark was the

J. J. Clark (second from left at rear) as an officer of the Victorian Volunteer Engineers, 1861. Photograph by Batchelder & O'Neill. Picture Collection, H26046.

precocious fourteen-year-old who arrived in Melbourne from Liverpool with his family in 1852 at the height of the Victorian gold rush and was immediately employed at the Colonial Architect's Office and given the task of designing civic buildings. By fifteen he had prepared plans for the extension of the city's post office. By seventeen he had designed the Customs House and Supreme Court in Geelong before creating the Government Printing Office in Melbourne. In 1857 he designed the greatest work of his career, the Treasury at the top of Collins Street. The Treasury is so accomplished it is widely regarded as Australia's finest Renaissance revival building. Clark was just nineteen when he signed the first drawings. The State Library holds several of Clark's Treasury drawings, some of which are discussed by Miles Lewis in the La Trobe Library Journal, number 20, December 1977.3
Clark worked as a Victorian public works architect until he was retrenched in January 1878 along with 200 other civil servants during the political crisis known as Black Wednesday. In his 26 years in the department he was prolific. He designed numerous court houses, post offices, lunatic asylums, prisons, public offices and customs houses, as well as the Royal Mint, the Registrar General's Office and official residences, including Government House. He returned briefly to the department to oversee the construction of Melbourne's Supreme Court. He then went on to work in three other Australian colonies and New Zealand and eventually returned to Melbourne

Reproduction print of a map of Liverpool, England, drawn by J. J. Clark in 1851, aged 13. Reproduction published by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria from the original in their collection.

for the last thirteen years of a career that lasted until World War I. He mastered every Renaissance inspired style from the Italianate to the Edwardian Baroque. His last works included the Auckland Town Hall and the Melbourne (later Queen Victoria) Hospital. At the time of his death in 1915 he was probably Australia's most respected hospital architect as well as the professions most successful private practitioner, having won, or been placed, in 37 of the 60 competitions he entered.
The Clark family arrived in Melbourne at just the right time. The gold rush had created a huge demand for new civic buildings but also a shortage of the men needed to build and design them. Clark was among the youngest of the influx of architects and craftsmen who supplied those skills. But with only middle school education behind him, he had neither a folio of designs nor endorsements from clients to recommend him. In his luggage, however, he had a school project in the form of a map he had drawn of his hometown of Liverpool. The map survives, and is one of the treasures of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. It is a remarkable piece of drafting, given it is the work of a thirteen year old. When Clark presented it at the Colonial Architect's Office in early 1852 no other proof of his potential was needed.
The map helps explain the origins of Clark's Free Public Library drawings. It

The façade of J. J. Clark's proposed Free Public Library, Sydney, c.1862. Picture Collection.

Perspective drawing by J. J. Clark of the Public Offices, Brisbane (later known as the Treasury and now as the Brisbane Casino) with proposed tower, 1883. Picture Collection.

shows his ability to fuse several ideas to create something original. We can assume he drew from at least two existing maps,4 combining some of their best elements and adding new features so that the final work became greater than the sum of its parts. This process of synthesis was at the heart of Clark's architecture too. In his early buildings he

J.J. Clark's alternative design for the proposed Free Public Library, Sydney, c. 1862. Picture Collection.

J.J. Clark, Façade of the Melbourne Treasury, c. 1858. Picture Collection.

explored the vocabulary of classical architecture. He mastered the motifs of the Italian Renaissance and in the Treasury we see how he was capable of blending a staggering number of these to create something harmonious, almost sublime.
By the time he finished his work on the Treasury in 1861,5 Clark had earned the respect of his colleagues but was obliged to return to the more mundane commissions of the Public Works Department. He worked on the entrance, panopticon and chapel at the Melbourne Gaol, which possibly would have been unchallenging given he had designed several buildings for Pentridge Gaol two years earlier. He was also given the commission in 1861 for a modest courthouse at Morse's Creek, now Bright. About this time he passed the examination for Lieutenant of the Victorian Volunteer Engineers, one of the brigades established to defend the colony. Membership of this unit was limited to engineers, architects, skilled mechanics and surveyors. Clark was appointed second captain in 1863 and later commanded the unit before resigning due to pressing work commitments. Clark has recently been identified among a group of the unit's officers in a rare photograph held by the State Library of Victoria.
When a public competition to design the new library in Sydney was announced, Clark was an eager participant. Here was another chance to create a civic building of substance, without having to conform to a rather rigid departmental style. I suspect Clark was also keen to prove a point. In his first two years in the colony he had been frustrated by the lack of formal training and had taken the initiative to gain extra tuition by working in the evenings for the private firm of Alfred Smith and Osgood Pritchard. For a period in 1853 he spent his evenings working for Joseph Reed, the newly arrived English architect who would win countless public competitions and do more than any other private practitioner to shape the architecture of nineteenth century Melbourne. Reed's works would include the Town Hall, the Exhibition Building, Scots Church and the Royal Society, to name just a few. According to Clark, he worked for Reed for 'a very short time' and 'assisted on two or three competitions that he worked through' at the time Reed 'first came into business',6 suggesting it was soon after July 1853.7 It is highly likely therefore that Clark assisted on Reed's successful entry for the Melbourne Public Library.
Reed remained close to Clark, later describing him as one of the Public Works 'men of undoubted talent'.8 Clark returned the compliment, acknowledging that his work with Reed, as well as Smith and Pritchard, was fundamental to 'learning so rapidly as I did at first'. Throughout his career Clark continued to appreciate the extra tuition he had received from these men.9 But, like any apprentice, he would have been anxious to prove himself. What better way to do so than to compete against Reed in the design for the planned Sydney Public Library?
The central portion fronting Swanston Street was the first stage of the Melbourne Public Library to be built and Clark most likely would have assisted in its design. It was opened on 11 February, 1856.10 We can assume the experience left a strong impression
on the young Clark because there are numerous similarities between its design and his design for the proposed library in Sydney. The arrangement of bays and shelves, demarcated by pillars or columns, is similar. So are aspects of the saloon ceiling and mezzanine flooring, although Clark added an extra mezzanine level for Sydney. There are similarities between the buildings but Clark's final composition was not a pastiche of the Melbourne library. In keeping with his approach, the design was a synthesis of other sources as well.
Clark did beat Reed in the Sydney competition. He was so proud of this fact that he noted it over twenty years later in his successful application for the position of Colonial Architect of Queensland. In the inventory of competitions he had won, he recorded:
Free Public Library, Sydney, no premium awarded, my design placed first, the Architect of Melbourne Public Library, second.11
However, as we will soon see, Clark's entry would suffer at the hands of the Sydney authorities as the proposed library became increasingly controversial. As a result, Clark's drawings are all that's left of his splendid vision.

The drawings

The drawings for the Free Public Library are undated. This is frustrating. They pre-date the first minutes of the trustees of the Sydney Free Public Library and Clark's Queensland job application does not give an exact date but they were in all likelihood prepared in early 1862. In keeping with the decorum of nineteenth century administration, public architectural competitions were anonymous to ensure architects were chosen on the merits of their entry, rather than on their name or reputation. Therefore all competitors were required to submit their entries under a moniker.12 Clark adopted the name 'Farnesina' for his library design. The name can be found in the bottom right hand corner of some of the drawings. This must surely have been homage to Baldassarre Peruzzi's Villa Farnesina in Rome (1509-11).13 The use of the name suggests Clark saw the villa on his grand tour of Europe in 1858, mid way through the construction of the Treasury. Outwardly the villa and Clark's proposed library have little in common. Closer inspection, however, reveals almost identical vaulting in both the proposed library hall or gallery and in the ceilings of Villa Farnesina's Loggia di Psiche. It seems Clark was impressed by the way Peruzzi had created a canvas in the ceiling for a series of frescoes by Romano, Penni, Raphael and himself. Clark adopted and modified this idea and on one of his library drawings he even added rough sketches to demonstrate how frescoes might look in his proposed library.
Clark's overall priorities for the library are confusing because in one drawing he has imposed a spherical dome within a mansard roof, above what appears to be the same gallery. This would later be praised by the prominent architectural critic, Florence Taylor as a 'bold conception'. In 1917, in a tribute edition of the journal Building to mark

Interior, proposed Free Public Library, Sydney, by J.J. Clark, c. 1862. Picture Collection. Note the similarity of the ceiling design with that of the Loggia di Psiche in the Villa Farnesia below.

'Vue de vestibule ou Loggia, Palais de la Farnesia' in Paul Letarouilly's Edificees de Rome Moderne..., Paris: A Morel, 1868, plate 102 (bottom).


Cross section of proposed Free Public Library, Sydney, by J. J. Clark, c.1862. Picture Collection.

Clark's death, Taylor wrote of the way the library design made a 'virtue of necessity' by combining beauty and utility14 It is not apparent how these two concepts for the gallery could co-exist, so it seems Clark was offering the Government a choice. We know Clark did this in other public competitions. The State Library of Victoria holds a fine example of this in the form of an alternative design for the 1883 competition for the Brisbane Public Offices (later known as the Queensland Treasury and now the Brisbane Casino). In this drawing Clark offered the Queensland Government an option of incorporating a central tower and dome as a fireproof repository for important government documents. After a bitter competition, Clark's entry was eventually chosen, but his tower idea was never executed.
Clark later recycled his Sydney Library design for a bank, proposed for Collins Street, Melbourne. He reconfigured both the gallery and the façade but like the library, these were never executed. His perspective for the bank's façade is held by the University of Melbourne Archives.

The proposal to build Sydney's first public library

The colony of Victoria had managed to open a public library within 21 years of European settlement of Melbourne. But in 1862, some 74 years after the arrival of the first fleet at Botany Bay, Sydney was still without one. It had a university library, a collection of Mechanics Institutes and other small holdings in various institutions, but nothing that was freely available to all. The closest thing to a colonial – or state – library
was the Australian Subscription Library, which had been founded in 1826 but had suffered from a lack of funds and an exclusive charter based on a British model that set entrance and subscription, or 'proprietor' fees so high that 'social undesirables' were discouraged from applying for membership.15
Despite this, the trustees of the Australian Subscription Library had built up an impressive collection of reference books and in 1845 managed to construct a building on land granted by the Government near the kitchen garden of old Government House on the corner of Bent and Macquarie Streets. But the Library's small membership base meant it continued to struggle. By 1859 the trustees offered to sell the Library and its books to the Government. The Premier, Charles Cowper, supported the idea but his Government fell in October of that year, putting the idea into abeyance.
Support continued to grow and in January 1862, the sum £25,000 for the Free Public Library, was voted by the New South Wales Parliament. On 17 January the member for Mudgee, Samuel Terry, asked the Secretary for Public Works, William Arnold, whether 'designs will be open to competition in the colony for the erection of a free library'. Arnold assured the Legislative Assembly that 'as soon as the amount voted was legally appropriated, the Government would determine in what way they would carry out the vote'.16 The competition proceeded, but so too did the debate about several aspects of the plan. Eight months later the Assembly passed a motion, proposed by the member for West Sydney, William Love, that the Government should take immediate steps to commence the building of the Free Public Library17 In the same month, the Australian Subscription Library again offered to sell both its building and books to the Crown for £10,000. Cowper was Premier again and in the following month he advocated that the Parliament approve the purchase and that the building form the basis of a public library pending the construction of the new building.18
The Subscription Library had many enemies and the Parliamentary debate was divisive. The member for Lower Hunter, Richard Sadleir, was scathing of the proposal to purchase the struggling institution. He believed the Subscription Library had failed because of its 'exclusiveness' and objected that it now 'had to be thrown on the hands of the Government'. He also condemned the building as 'better fitted in every respect for a menagerie'. This was rejected by the member for Hawkesbury, William Piddington, who pointed out that 'a large sum of money had been expended in the improvement of the Library'. He believed the parliament would 'obtain a great bargain by making this purchase' and that the 'books were cheap at £3000'.
The member for Patrick's Plains, Joseph Harpur, thought the books at the Subscription Library were unsuitable. He agreed that the Subscription Library had 'no doubt, some books of reference, but they were very imperfect'. He noted that its trustees could not guarantee that various sets were complete and thought the site of the Subscription Library was inappropriate for a public library because it was 'quite out of the way and would shut out all those who live in the suburbs'. This claim would
eventually be proved wrong as the Subscription Library was just across the road from the site of the current State Library of New South Wales. Harpur also distrusted the Government's intentions, favouring to somehow keep the public library out of its hands. At the same time he questioned whether an independently run library would be properly managed, concluding 'there was a tendency in almost all these institutions to become more and more exclusive and aristocratic – and to shut out the working man'.19
The member for West Sydney, Daniel Dalgleish, preferred to purchase just the books. He did not believe the directors of the Subscription Library were entitled to sell the ground on which the building stood and claimed the land should revert to the Crown. In addition he thought the building was 'so weakly constructed as to be incapable of bearing its own weight and had bulged out in an alarming manner'. If the Government did acquire the library, it 'could only be fit for the purpose of being pulled down'.
The Reverend Dr John Dunmore Lang took another view. He held a subscription to the Library on offer and had been one of its 'original proprietors'. He told the House he had 'cordially acquiesced' in the proposal to sell out and that the public should seize this opportunity to take possession of the library and its valuable collection. He thought the building would serve as temporary accommodation until a 'more commodious institution was provided'. Lang also argued that times had changed. Twenty years earlier, novels and romances had not been considered the 'proper kinds of books to be found in the catalogue of a free library'. By 1862 there were some 'works of that class to which the objections did not apply'. To cries of 'hear hear', Lang nominated the works of Sir Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer-Lytton as examples. Interestingly, Lang did concede that if Sydney was looking to create something on the scale of the Melbourne Public Library, the purchase of the Subscription Library was not the solution because its site was inferior.
Premier Cowper reassured the House that procuring the Subscription Library was not intended to delay or 'interfere with the speedy completion of a permanent institution in a suitable situation'. It was instead an effort to 'secure the books in order that they might form the basis of the new library'.20 The motion then became rather complicated when Richard Sadleir asked on a point of order whether those MPs holding library subscriptions should be barred from voting on the grounds that as proprietors of the library they stood to gain financially from the outcome. Joseph Harpur calculated that after the library's debts of £4000 had been discharged, the subscribers would have £6000 to divide among themselves. This was dismissed as a 'fallacy' by William Piddington. But Premier Cowper said he would not vote, while Dr Lang said that he would. The Speaker referred to the standing orders of the House of Commons which only served to confuse the issue further, as no one could predict the extent to which members would benefit and whether this would outweigh their necessary public duties.
When the point of order was put to the House, the members divided with
seventeen saying aye on one side and seventeen saying no on the other. The Speaker then cast his vote to allow the original question to proceed. However, Cowper's motion to purchase the Subscription Library failed by just one vote with Cowper himself abstaining on the matter of principle he had already been absolved of by the previous vote. It is notable that such a pivotal moment in the cultural history of the colony rested on such a tight and fraught ballot.
But as strange as this was, it was only half the story, because another related debate was also taking place. When the New South Wales Government had approved a public competition for the design of a new library, it had also purchased a site in Elizabeth Street on which to build. But in December 1862, the member for Bathurst, John Hart, moved 'that the site in Elizabeth Street selected by the Government for the Free Public Library is unsuitable and that the land at the corner of George and Druitt Streets, known as the Old Burial Ground, ought to be appropriated for that purpose'. He proposed re-interring corpses to make way for the new library because, as he told the Legislative Assembly, 'a more unfortunate selection could scarcely have been made'. He argued the site in Elizabeth Street failed to meet principles established in Europe where, it was well understood, a library required:
Complete isolation to guard against contingencies of fire and secure that quiet necessary for study; the command of proper light, dryness of situation and proximity to the habitations of those likely to attend the institution.21
On all these criteria, he believed the block in Elizabeth Street was 'altogether deficient'. It was bordered by a public house on one side and a 'number of hovels' on the other. He concluded it was a site better suited for a dwelling house or a commercial establishment. Hart's claim, that 'it would defy every architectural effort to erect an appropriate building thereon', was contestable. After all, Clark had managed within the brief to design a building of some stature. In fact, ingenious designs for difficult sites would become something of a Clark speciality. Later in his career his Melbourne City Baths and Auckland Town Hall were acclaimed as highly successful public buildings because they were both elegant and functional, despite their awkward triangular sites.
The Works Secretary, William Arnold, reminded the House that as only £25,000 had been allocated for the new building, he had been obliged to reject the offer of another larger site. He argued that to acquire a larger site, suited for a building of five or six times the allocated cost, would be irresponsible. What's more, the best of the recently received competition entries, including Clark's, were all likely to cost well in excess of the approved budget. In Arnold's view this further proved that the site was appropriate because a smaller block would ensure costs were contained.
There was some irony in the observations of William Windeyer, who told the House that he had seen the Melbourne Public Library and as a consequence 'had become fully alive to the fact that large rooms were necessary'. He said he had been 'much pleased with what he had seen there', and hoped Sydney would soon have an
institution 'which would prove equally beneficial to the public'. He believed this could not be the case while the site for Sydney's library was so small. In other words, one of the important inspirations for Clark's design, the public library in Melbourne, was effectively being used as a basis for rejecting his design for a library in Sydney on a much smaller site.
William Piddington agreed that Arnold should have taken the time to visit Melbourne, as he explained, 'It was an unfortunate thing that the hon. Minister for Works had not visited Melbourne because he would then have seen there a public library that would reflect some credit on the country'.22
John Hart's motion was doubly rejected because an amendment was quickly passed removing the proposal to acquire the old burial ground from the motion and then what was left of his resolution was also voted down. Nevertheless, as the debate had indicated, there was a growing realisation that the site was ill-conceived and ultimately its size and location were major factors in the failure of the entire concept.
Consequently, Clark's drawings were returned to him. No payment, or premium, was made and the status quo remained in New South Wales for another seven years. Some years later, Clark was asked why he had missed out on the commission after winning the competition. He told a Victorian Royal Commission that 'the thing was thrown over from jealousy' because 'the first five designs were from Melbourne Architects'.23 This was an exaggeration. Victorian architects certainly dominated the competition but this was because most of the practitioners in Sydney had chosen to boycott it as they also believed the site was entirely unsuitable.


Sydney did get a public library in 1869 but only by finally acquiring the indebted Australian Subscription Library. As a consequence of the indecision, Clark had been denied the chance to build his grand Sydney building. He could, however, claim the last laugh. While he was giving his evidence at the Royal Commission in Melbourne in 1873, the library trustees in Sydney were preparing to shut the doors of the building they had acquired four years earlier. They were doing so to carry out urgent repairs because by then it was in a 'very dilapidated state'.24 This would not have been the case if Clark's building had been constructed.
So perhaps there is poetic justice in the fact that the pictures are stored in the State Library of Victoria. They have come home to the very building that had helped train the architect and in a sense inspired his design for the Sydney building. If Sydney's lawmakers had been less fractious, they would have scored both the architectural drawings and the building they represent. It is an open question whether Sydney was ultimately best served by not constructing Clark's building and by waiting for the development of the Mitchell Library building in the early 1900s and its subsequent expansion and redevelopment to incorporate the Dixson Collection and the general collection of the State Library of New South Wales.


Brian H. Fletcher, Magnificent Obsession: the story of the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Allen and Unwin, 2007


David J. Jones, A Source of Inspiration & Delight: the buildings of the State Library of New South Wales since 1826, Sydney: Library Council of NSW, 1998.


This can be viewed on-line at


The probable sources for Clark's map of Liverpool were T. Brown's A New Map of Liverpool, 1850 and James Stonehouse's A New Handbook for the Stranger in Liverpool, 1844.


The Treasury's entrance terraces and lanterns were added six years later. They were also designed by Clark.


Evidence of J. J. Clark, 'Royal Commission to Enquire into the Public Works Department', (hereafter 'Victorian Royal Commission 1873') Victorian Legislative Assembly, vol. III, Minutes of Evidence, 2 May 1873, question 908, p. 36.


See his entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, 976, pp 13-14. Also available on-line at


Evidence of Joseph Reed, 'Victorian Royal Commission', 23 April 1873, question 628, p. 23.


Ibid, question 904, p. 36.


Edmund La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1856-1906, Melbourne: Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906, p. 3. A new room was opened on the south side of the Central Hall on 24 May 1859, the anniversary of the birthday of Queen Victoria. It was called "The Queen's Hall' in her honour and the name was soon adopted for the whole of the first floor of the library. See Armstrong, p. 9.


J. J. Clark, Application for the position of Colonial Architect, Queensland, 1883, Queensland State Archives, WOR A/219.


Presumably Clark added his signature to some of the drawings after the competition.


Villa Farnesina was illustrated in Paul Letarouilly's Edificees de Rome Moderne, ou, Recueil des Palais, maisons, eglises, couvents, et autre monuments publics et particuliers les plus remarkables de la ville de Rome, Paris: A. Morel, 1868, plates 101-103.


Florence Taylor, Building, vol. 20 no. 118, 'Clark Memorial Number', 12 June 1917, pp. 51-66.


G.D. Richardson, The Colony's Quest for a National Library, reprinted from Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 47, Part 2, 1960, p. 8.


Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1862, p. 3.


Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of NSW, 9 September 1862, p. 433.


Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of NSW, 29 October 1862, p. 557.


Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 1862, pp. 3-4.




Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 1862, p. 3.




Evidence of J. J. Clark, 'Victorian Royal Commission, 1873', questions 960-61, p. 37.


'Minutes of the Trustees of the Public Free Library', 10 February 1873 and 12 May 1873, Mitchell Collection, State Library of New South Wales.