The Architecture of Arthur Purnell

The Architecture of Arthur William Purnell (1878–1964)

Arthur Purnell had a long and successful career, maintaining a busy architectural practice in Melbourne — both on his own and in partnership with others — until he retired in the late 1950s. Over this time he designed hundreds of buildings, ranging from garages to grandstands.

His eclectic repertoire included Chinoiserie, Italianate, Modern, Neo-Classical, Queen Anne, Spanish Mission and even what would be described today as Post-Modern.

Between 1900 and 1910 Purnell lived and worked in China. At least a dozen of Purnell’s buildings still exist in China and recently Purnell has been ‘rediscovered’ by the Chinese and acclaimed as a major architect there.

Purnell also had a long-standing and a close client-architect relationship with Alexander George (‘Alec’) Barlow (1880–1937), a trailblazing, somewhat shady Melbourne car dealer. Redesigned car show rooms, racing stables and a house were amongst the work completed by Purnell for Barlow.

The University of Melbourne Archives is now the custodian of thousands of Purnell’s architectural drawings. These provide not only a unique view of architecture and life in Melbourne during the first half of the 20th century, but are also a valuable resource for contemporary designers.

Joan Dickson, Purnell’s daughter, also presented four photograph albums of her father’s to the State Library of Victoria and two reference books that Purnell owned in China to the University of Melbourne Architecture Library.

Text by Derham Groves

Dr Derham Groves is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. He is currently working on a book about Arthur Purnell.

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