A Quest for Perfection: William Wilkinson Wardell and St Patrick's Cathedral

By T.A. Hazell

"Inveni Quod Quaesivi" translates as "I have found that which I sought". This is the motto adopted by the young architect and, engineer, William Wilkinson Wardell, at the time of his reception into the Catholic Church, in London, in 1843.

Wardell’s conversion was the climax of a period of intense spiritual introspection and study, begun during the previous five years, when he was engaged on engineering surveys throughout England for the implementation of the new railways system. His keen mind was instantly drawn to the monuments of England’s Catholic past, to the great cathedrals, ruined abbeys and parish churches which dominated the landscape.

For the most part, they were still in a ruinous or mutilated state, as the restorations of the Gothic Revival had barely begun. For Wardell, as for his mentor and friend Augustus Welby Pugin, the attraction to the Catholic Church, initially through its art and architecture, became after study and enquiry a return to origins, to the spirituality and tradition of England’s Catholic faith. His new life, and for family reasons there was an abrupt break with his past, from then onwards was one of praising God through perfection in architecture and the erection of worthy and timeless buildings in his honour.

Spirituality is, for most of us, an intensely personal matter and it was certainly so for William Wardell. But we can gain an insight into what he thought, by what we know of his personal life and the few mementos which he has left. We know that in each of his homes, both in England and in Australia, there was a room set aside, for use as a chapel for private prayers, and that it was to this room that he withdrew for several periods of the day and night. Its central feature was a beautifully carved crucifix in wood, which he had acquired in France in the 1840s, but it is obviously much older than that. It is now with the Diocesan Historical Commission. Also with the Commission are his prayer books, bible and rosary beads. One of the prayer books, the Hortus Animae or Garden of the Soul, was the traditional spiritual manual used by English-speaking Catholics throughout the 19th century. But its main interest lies in two prayers to the Blessed Virgin, composed by Wardell himself and transcribed into blank pages in the book. Here, Mary is invoked as "my patroness, my mother, and my advocate with God" and further, Wardell writes, "I consecrate myself for ever, with all that belongs to me, to thy service". The Blessed Virgin seems truly to have been the guide and comfort of his life. We also know that periods of prayer preceded periods of drafting plans of church buildings. All of this work, so obviously part of the quest for spiritual satisfaction, marked the 56 years of his life as a Catholic architect, in the tradition of Pugin with whom he had so many similarities.

St Patrick’s Cathedral is one of a handful of Australian buildings of truly world significance. It is one of the greatest buildings erected by the exponents of the Gothic-Revival style. The Melbourne Cathedral is also the largest Church to have been commenced and brought to substantial completion anywhere in the world in the 19th century. These bare details are not only statements of fact, but serve to place the building in its proper context, as a monument to those who projected it, to those who in faith financed it, to Wardell who designed it, and to the builders and craftsmen who erected it. In many ways, it was a team effort with the leaders being William Wardell and John Fitzpatrick, Dean and Vicar-General, who saw the project as "God’s work" and, no matter how precarious the funding might and did become, as something which "must not be stopped". For Wardell, with an enormous public and private practice, the erection of St Patrick’s Cathedral was something which occupied him for the entire period of his life, in Australia. The plans, which basically did not vary during construction, were prepared soon after his arrival in 1858: the nave and its aisles were completed in 1868; the building was consecrated in 1897: and at the time of his death in 1899, Wardell was still working on designs for altars and other fittings which were not in place at the time of the consecration.

In every detail, the fabric of St Patrick’s Cathedral conforms with the true principles of Gothic-style architecture and with the standards and interpretation of the masters of the Gothic Revival movement. It has been constructed, rather than built, with attention to its axis and surroundings. Its proportions are perfection themselves: when they appear not to be harmonious, it is due to the work of others who added to or altered the building without fully respecting the concept and architectural philosophy of the original designs.  Decoration is never for its own sake, but serves as an enrichment of the whole structure. The interior ordering and symbolism reflect the mature thinking of one who knew the great works of the Middle Ages, particularly in England, who had read the medieval text books, who had seen the best of the Gothic-Revival in Europe, and who was an acknowledged master in adapting the so-called "true style" or "Christian architecture" to meet the requirements of the age in which he lived. More than this, there is also constantly reflected in Wardell’s correspondence and notes the conviction that St Patrick’s was to be a building for all time.

William Wardell died in 1899. His whole adult life was contained within the Victorian Age, in an era of faith, passionately-held beliefs, and controversies. He outlived almost all of his contemporaries who, for the most part, were much older than him. We do not know if his forty years in Australia, brought him the satisfaction which he sought when he left England as a migrant with a young family. We can surmise that it must have been difficult to leave behind the historic buildings which he loved and the artistic and literary circles which he frequented. But perhaps we can say, with some certainty, that he might have felt some satisfaction in leaving Australia such a legacy of impressive buildings, which speak for him. Not least of these is St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wardell’s quest for perfection is written in the stones and in every detail of this most impressive tribute to God, "the work of centuries crowded into years", as it was so aptly described at the time of its consecration in October 1897.