Cultural Collections

From Canton Club to Melbourne Cricket Club: The Architecture of Arthur Purnell

A Baillieu Library Cultural Collections Exhibition
4 October 2006 to 30 January 2007
Curated by Dr Derham Groves in association with Brian Allison
Leigh Scott Gallery, First Floor, Baillieu Library

A complete catalogue is available from the University Bookroom.

The Architecture of Arthur Purnell on the Culture Victoria web site

Arthur William Purnell (1878-1964) was born into a family of architect/builders based in Geelong, Victoria. He studied Architecture at Gordon College (now Deakin University) before joining the family business Purnell & Sons.

Following a world study tour in 1899, he settled in China for a decade where he established a lucrative business designing buildings on Shameen (now Shamian), a small island set aside by the Chinese government in Canton (now Guangzhou) for foreigners to work and live. His firm Purnell & Paget (Charles Paget was an American engineer) employed Melbourne-born John Stevens Gawler (1885-1978), a future University of Melbourne Architect and first Dean of the University's Architecture Faculty.

Purnell & Paget's many commissions included renovations to the Canton Club, business premises for European trading companies and, significantly, the South China Cement Factory. Situated on the strategically important Honam Island in the Pearl River, the Factory was coopted in 1917 by China's first democratically elected President, Dr Sun Yat-sen, as his Presidential Palace.

Returning to Melbourne, Purnell worked for the rest of his life in various businesses with different partners. He has been described as a 'compleat architect' – his wide range of skills and experience meant that no job was too small nor too large (or even too obscure) for him to take on. One of his last commissions was the Olympic Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Club. He prepared designs for greyhound tracks and golf courses but also designed numerous suburban houses, house alterations and small shop facades. Purnell occasionally tried to introduce design elements adopted from his years immersed in Chinese culture.

Although Arthur Purnell grew up in the late Victorian Period and was schooled in the popular building styles of the 19th century, he was a designer who comfortably embraced Modernist design of the 20th century, executing numerous Moderne (or Art Deco) designs, and late in life working convincingly in the minimalist International Style.

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