About Pugin > Australian Bishops
Bishop Robert William Willson
Because of Bishop Willson, Tasmania has the only coherent collection of Pugin-designed buildings, furnishings, stained glass, metalwork, textiles, carved woodwork and stonework outside the British Isles.
The Willson and Pugin families had close connections reaching back to Pugin’s childhood and the two men were close friends, counting in their close circle Pugin’s munificent patron John Talbot, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury. While the then Fr Willson was in charge of the Catholic mission in Nottingham, Pugin designed a huge church, St Barnabas’, for him, largely paid for by Lord Shrewsbury. It would become a cathedral in 1850. Of all the English Catholic clergy, William Willson was the one who most comprehensively subscribed to the totality of Pugin’s vision and strove to make it a reality, both in England and Australia.
When Willson was nominated as first Bishop of Hobart Town, Pugin designed, at no charge, not only his episcopal regalia but everything a new bishop would need in Australia, including vestments, altar vessels, church furnishings, even tomb stones, and three small churches. Craftsmen employed by George Myers, Pugin’s favoured builder, carved full-size crosses for the gables of churches, holy water stoups, a baptismal font, and other church fittings in limestone as exemplars for local copying.
Pugin’s church designs were not realised as sets of drawings but as highly detailed scale models - also made by Myers’ men - which could be used to create simple buildings in a land where craft skills were thought to be minimal. This entire precious trove accompanied Bishop Willson to Hobart Town on the 560 ton barque Bella Marina in 1844.
Because Willson’s embryonic diocese was very poor, over half his flock being convicts, Pugin’s designs were for inexpensive objects of pared down simplicity, relying for their beauty on pure line and form. As such they form a unique and important component of his oeuvre.
On return visits to England in 1847 and 1854 Willson acquired more Pugin-designed metalwork, silk vestments, carved woodwork and stonework, as well as a presbytery design and a stained glass window, the latter a gift from Pugin. The window bears a unique testimony to their close friendship across its base: ‘Orate pro bono statu Augustus Welby de Pugin’ (Pray for the good estate of Augustus Welby de Pugin).
Archbishop John Bede Polding OSB
In June 1841 when Polding landed in England on his first trip home from Australia, Pugin was riding the crest of a wave of approbation, building churches with stunning interiors filled with colour and imagery the likes of which had not been seen since the Reformation. Polding was to experience this bold assertion of the power and magnetism of emancipated English Catholicism within days of his arrival when he attended the dedication of Pugin’s St Chad’s, Birmingham, on 20 June in the company of a great gathering of prelates. The conviction of its architecture, the glowing colour of its painted and stencilled surfaces, its genuine medieval pulpit, statues and fittings, its splendid stone altar and reredos under an elaborate canopy and especially the glorious rood screen would have stood in stark contrast to the feeble boxes of local architects in Sydney. Polding would have another opportunity to admire this radical new building when, on 27 October 1842, he consecrated Robert William Willson as first Bishop of Hobart Town there. Doubtless Willson would have told Polding of the great Church of St Barnabas, the largest Catholic church in England since the Reformation, which he was in the course of building to Pugin’s designs in Nottingham.
But perhaps the greatest stimulus for Polding to approach Pugin seeking designs for Australian buildings would have come from contact with his brethren at his old home Downside Priory. The Benedictine community was in possession of a marvellous design prepared by Pugin for a vast new monastery in the Early English style on a scale surpassing a great many English medieval abbeys. The monastic buildings were arranged around four large courtyards and included a huge cruciform church with a trinity of spires. Surely the psychological impact of Pugin’s visionary scheme on the Downside monks and on Polding must have been immense.
In December 1842, a month after Polding set sail from Liverpool, Pugin’s notebook recorded the delivery of drawings for Sydney. They were for extensions to St. Mary’s cathedral, a temporary bell tower, five churches of various sizes and a school. Like several of his Australian episcopal colleagues Polding would turn in time to Hardmans and their chief designer Pugin for metalwork and vestments, but also for stained glass and furnishings. Some important objects survive.