John Sulman

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Portrait of John Sulman by John Longstaff, 1931

Sir John Sulman (29 August 1849 – 18 August 1934) was an Australian architect. Born in Greenwich, England, he emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1885. From 1921 to 1924 he was chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee and influenced the development of Canberra.

Early life[edit]

Sulman was born in Greenwich, England. He was educated at the Greenwich Proprietary School and the Royal Institute of British Architects, of which he was Pugin travelling scholar in 1871. After travelling through England and western Europe Sulman began practising as an architect in London and designed among other buildings a large number of churches.

Career in Australia[edit]

Sulman went to Sydney in 1885 and the following year became a business partner of C.H.E. Blackmann. As a partner in the firm of Sulman and Power was associated in the designing of many of the finest buildings in Sydney and other capital cities. These included the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital, Concord, Sydney, the A.M.P. buildings in Melbourne and Brisbane, the Mutual Life Association building, Sydney, afterwards known as New Zealand Chambers, the Sydney Stock Exchange, The Armidale School in northern NSW, and several suburban churches. Between 1887 and 1912 Sulman was P. N. Russell lecturer in architecture at the University of Sydney. After 1908 he retired from active practice to some extent to develop his interest in town-planning. From 1916 to 1927 he was the Vernon lecturer in town planning at the University of Sydney. In 1921 he published his An Introduction to the Study of Town Planning in Australia.

Sulman published his plan for the capital city that became Canberra in his book The Federal Capital in 1908.[1] However his plan was not chosen. Sulman however became involved with the planning of Canberra in 1921 when he was appointed head of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee. Sulman's alterations to the Griffin plan made the city less like the one Griffin had planned and more in line with the English garden city movement.

1929 picture of the Sydney Building looking across Northbourne Avenue from the Melbourne Building

The Melbourne and Sydney buildings in Canberra's city centre, Civic, were based on design principles set by Sulman although the design work was finalised by J H Kirkpatrick. The buildings were the model which establish the colonnade principle, an important design element throughout Civic.

One of the most coveted architecture prizes, the prestigious Sir John Sulman Medal, also known as the Sulman Award, recognises excellence in public and commercial buildings. The medal is awarded by the New South Wales Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. The medal was first awarded in 1932.

He was a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1899 and its president from 1919.[2] The Sir John Sulman Prize for "the best subject/genre painting and/or murals/mural project executed during the two years preceding the [closing] date ..." has been held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1936. It is hosted concurrently with the Archibald Prize, the most prominent Australian art prize, along with the Wynne prize and Dobell art prizes. The prize was established as a bequest by the Sulman family. Sulman had been appointed a trustee of the art gallery of New South Wales in 1899 and was its president from 1919. When initiated the prize was about £100 annually and for the best subject painting or mural decoration by artists resident in Australia.

Sulman also endowed a lectureship in aeronautics at the University of Sydney in memory of a son killed during World War I while serving with the Flying Corps.

Personal life[edit]

John married Sarah Clark Redgate on 15 April 1875 at the Congregational Church at Caterham, Surrey. He had designed the church where they married, and theirs was the first wedding held there. They had three children, a son Arthur (1882–1971) and daughters Florence E. (1876–1965) and Edith (1877–1907) [3]

They moved to Sydney, Australia on account of his wife's tuberculosis. They arrived on 13 August 1885 and settled at Parramatta, where his wife died on 31 December 1888.[4]

His parents John (senior) and Martha moved into Addiscombe at Lane Cove Rd. in Turramurra.[5]

He married again, to Annie Elizabeth Masefield (a relative of John Masefield) at St Luke's Anglican Church, Burwood, on 27 April 1893.[6] His health broke down in 1896, prompting a trip to Europe. When they returned, he turned the cottage he had originally intended for his parents at Boomerang St. Turramurra into their family home Ingleholme, which developed into a "rambling complex of gables, bays, turrets and chimneys".[7]

Children by this second marriage were Geoffrey, Dorothy Joan (b. January 31, 1896 d. 1971), and Thomas Noel ("Tom", or "Tommy"). Geoffrey enlisted in England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. He died aged 23 in 1917, in a flying accident over England, prior to being qualified for combat duties.[8] Thomas became a racing car driver, and developed the Sulman Singer, and Sulman Park in Bathurst is named after him. He was still racing in 1954. He died in 1970, aged 70.[9][10] Joan married Bruce Thomas Shallard, MD, and in 1947, moved to Vancouver, B.C. Canada, with their daughters, Barbara (Shallard) Ash, and Meryn (Shallard) Stranahan.

In 1913 John Sulman purchased the magnificent property "Kihilla" at Lawson in the Blue Mountains as a second home; it remained in the family until 1953.[11]

Mrs Sulman was socially active, being a prominent member of such organisations as the Leura and Lawson branches of the Red Cross Society. Florence, usually referred to as "Miss Sulman" was active in the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW,[12] where she was president 1928–35 and 1951–56)[13] as well as hospital and kindergarten charities.[14] Florence was author of the two-volume (1913, 1914) Wildflowers of New South Wales.[15]

He retired in 1928[16] but remained a highly visible presence in civic, art and architectural circles, taking a prominent role in many public debates.[17] He died in Sydney aged 85 years.

Most of the family mentioned here are interred or memorialized at Gore Hill cemetery.[18]


He was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1924.[19]

In 1926 he was elected to the International Housing and Town Planning Congress in Vienna.[20]

His portrait by John Longstaff won the Archibald prize for 1931.

On 2 January 2008 it was announced that a suburb in the future Canberra district of Molonglo would be named Sulman.[21]


The main building of The Armidale School designed by Sir John Sulman in 1892.


Further reading[edit]