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A.W. Purnell Exhibition in China

Recently I attended the opening of an exhibition and symposium on the work of the Australian architect Arthur Purnell at the Museum of Generalissimo Sun Yat-sen’s Mansion, which Purnell designed in 1907, in Guangzhou, China. It was a very formal affair involving a ribbon cutting ceremony (I’m at the end on the left). I think Purnell would have been pleased.

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A Melbourne office building designed by Arthur Purnell in the late 1950s. Purnell loved flash cars and drove a Studebaker at the time, which may well be the car shown in this sketch.

I’ve just received a $20,000 research grant from the Sidney Myer Fund to continue my work on the architecture of Arthur W. Purnell, an Australian architect who lived and worked in Guangzhou, China, between 1900 and 1910. In 1904 he and American engineer Charles Paget established the firm Purnell & Paget, which was responsible for designing several important buildings in Guangzhou, including a marvellous cement factory that became the headquarters of the Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen. Almost all of the firm’s buildings over there were European-style. Purnell returned to Australia in 1910 and maintained a busy architectural practice, working either alone or in partnership, virtually up until his death in 1964. He designed hundreds of buildings in Melbourne, ranging from humble garages to huge grandstands. A significant number of these were influenced by his years in Guangzhou: some buildings were for local Chinese clients, some had Chinese-style elements, and some had Chinese names. Unfortunately Purnell has been totally forgotten in Guangzhou and largely forgotten in Melbourne. The grant money will be used to conserve his drawings and to establish a website.

A.W. Purnell


French ‘candle-snuffer’ style tower, Imperial Customs House, Shamian, Guangzhou, China, designed in 1904 by Geelong/Melbourne architect Arthur W. Purnell (shown, right, playing golf circa 1938).