Zeny Edwards, A Life of Purpose: a biography of John Sulman (2017) 392 pp, ISBN-13: 9780648171928, RRP: $59.95
I felt honoured when Zeny asked me to launch her wonderful new book and was pleased to accept the invitation. I am here wearing two hats. First, I am John Sulman’s eldest great grandchild. Second, I am also a professional historian whose interests include Australia’s historic built environment and family history.
I never met my great grandfather. He died in 1934 and I was not born until 1949. His widow Annie died a day after I was born. My mother Diana, however, was his eldest granddaughter, shared his architectural, artistic and town planning interests, and often discussed him with me. She was justifiably proud of his achievements. From time to time we visited buildings that he designed. She also closely followed the art and architecture awards that honoured him. During family holidays in Canberra she spoke of her grandfather’s contributions to the national capital’s design and planning. The Sydney house where I now live, which previously belonged to my parents, has some of his framed architectural drawings on its walls. His large architect’s desk, a reproduction of John Longstaff’s Archibald prize winning portrait of him, and many books that he owned are in my study as is the clock presented to him in 1919 by his students in New South Wales’s first town planning course at the University of Sydney. Until they were given to the State Library of New South Wales almost ten years ago, I looked after a large collection of his papers, photographs and plans. Growing up in Sydney during the 1950s and the 1960s I knew all his surviving children: Florence, always known as Florrie, Arthur, Joan, my grandfather Tom, and John, usually called Jack. None is still living but I keep in contact with his only surviving grandchild Meryn, who resides in the United States. I particularly enjoyed the family gatherings Florrie hosted at the attractive arts and crafts style house in Collaroy that her father designed for her, sadly now demolished. During these gatherings Florrie and her siblings sometimes reminisced about him. While researching my doctoral thesis at the Australian National University in the early 1970s I was intrigued to discover that John Sulman was for a while quite closely associated with my thesis subject, the federal politician Littleton Groom who between 1918 and 1921 was the minister responsible for Canberra’s development.
I found both then and later that Sulman was widely recognised as a major figure. In Darwin, where I lived for 25 years, I learned from my PhD student Eve Gibson, a historian of town planning, that his garden suburbs ideas influenced significant aspects of the city’s development. Even leaving aside my obvious family bias, it was clear from the work of other historians, perhaps most notably Robert Freestone’s influential publications on the development and theory of modern planning in Australia, that he deserved a full biography and it was disappointing that there was none. At one stage the prominent architectural historian Max Freeland was collecting materials for such a biography but for various reasons it never came to fruition. Another well-known architectural historian, the late Trevor Howells, also began work on a Sulman biography but, like Freeland, did not complete the task. I wondered when I first learned from my mother that Zeny Edwards was interested in writing about Sulman whether or not she would persist. Once I got to know her, however, I had no doubt at all that she would. She demonstrated a determined, enthusiastic and wide-ranging interest in Sulman and his work. She had, as well, all the necessary research and writing skills, and a proven record of commitment to the documentation of Australia’s cultural heritage. As she proceeded with the biography my mother and I were impressed with her progress. Zeny’s doctoral thesis, on which her book is based, was completed not long after my mother’s death but other family members and I greatly enjoyed reading it. Although I thought I knew quite a lot about my great grandfather, there was much in the thesis that was new to me.
Until Zeny used them, researchers had not examined many of the primary sources on which A Life of Purpose is based. Some were privately held and not well organised. They included records at my parents’ home in Mosman and my cousin Lea’s property about an hour’s drive from Tamworth. Zeny visited buildings that Sulman designed. Her research also encompassed an enormous variety of other sources, such as organisational records and articles in periodicals.
The book devotes considerable attention to Sulman’s family background, early life, education, the origins of his ideas, the numerous buildings for which he was responsible in Britain and Australia, his role in professional bodies, his extensive public activities, his town planning career, his patronage of the arts, his two wives and their children, and his private life. The contributions he made to public debates, such as that regarding a tunnel or bridge connecting Sydney Harbour’s north and south shores, are explored and interrogated. Although Zeny is generally a sympathetic biographer, she analyses, as she should, Sulman’s cunning self-promotion, nervous breakdowns, and conflicts with professional colleagues. Also mentioned is how his knighthood only came after he lobbied the federal government to secure it. I found the discussion of Sulman as a husband and parent especially illuminating. In spite of being a strict disciplinarian and often living in Sydney while his younger children were growing up in the Blue Mountains, he was a far more attentive and supportive father than I had previously believed. Zeny refers to three great family tragedies he experienced: the deaths while they were all still young of his first wife Sarah, his daughter Edith and his son Geoffrey. She also writes about how in his last days Sulman was more worried about his children’s well being than his own.
Zeny convincingly shows how as a public intellectual Sulman helped shape his adopted country’s national identity. ‘Sir John Sulman’s presence’, she concludes, ‘is still very much felt … the Sulman name has become a part of the vocabulary of Australian architecture, town planning and the arts’.
A Life of Purpose is logically organised and clearly written. Handsomely produced, it has numerous well-chosen images. While its scholarship is impeccable, it is also highly readable. I am delighted that this significant contribution to Australian biographical and historical literature is now published and congratulate Zeny on her achievement. I encourage you all to purchase copies.
Emeritus Professor David Carment