Alexander Brown Wilson (1857-1938)

Alex Wilson was precocious as both an architect and artist. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he was the fifth son of George Wilson, a merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Watson. In 1864 young Wilson immigrated with his family to Brisbane where he attended the Normal School, though his secondary education remains a mystery. His artistic talent soon attracted attention. In 1873, in an Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures at Brisbane’s School of Arts, the Telegraph newspaper of 17 November noted ‘a series of carefully executed watercolour drawings, principally waterscapes by Master A.B. Wilson, who has evidently a love for the picturesque and beautiful, which with proper cultivation, bids fair to make him an accomplished artist’. Later in Brisbane’s First Intercolonial Exhibition of 1876, his St Alban’s, pen and ink, and Head of Diomedes, sepia, won certificates in the schools section.

In 1875 Alex Wilson joined the Buildings Branch of the Queensland Department of Public Works as a clerk and later served as a junior draftsman. At the time architectural training in Brisbane was limited to experience in an office, usually as an articled pupil of an established practitioner. Although not an articled pupil, Wilson served under Colonial Architect (and fellow Scotsman) F.D.G. Stanley. Unlike many pupils, he had the advantage of being remunerated for his efforts. As Stanley’s protégé, Wilson was promoted to second draftsman within two years. An example of his early work for the Department is the Clermont Court House (1879), which conforms to the designs of a fellow draftsman, George St P. Connolly, and gives no indication of the elaboration of his work that would emerge only a few years later. Wilson took advantage of what little formal technical training was available locally. He attended drawing classes begun in 1881 by well-known artist, Joseph Augustus Clarke, at the Brisbane School of Arts. There he probably also joined architect Christian Waagepetersen’s evening courses on drawing and building construction. In addition, he may have attended classes at the South Brisbane Mechanics Institute, conveniently located in Grey Street between the city and his family home in Highgate Hill.

From 1878, as draftsman to Colonel P.H. Scratchley, Commissioner of Defences for the Australian colonies, Alex Wilson prepared drawings for the Lytton Battery, of which Stanley was architect. The Lytton Battery was one of many works undertaken by Colonial Architect Stanley in a private capacity, a situation viewed with increasing disquiet in official circles. It is likely that assisting Stanley after hours with his private work supplemented the training Wilson received in his government employment. Whatever the circumstance, working for Stanley would have given him proficiency in the architectural styles of the day. In 1881, with a prestigious commission for the head office of the Queensland National Bank, Stanley commenced private practice in Brisbane. Wilson joined him soon afterwards in March 1882 to become his ‘principal’ draftsman. Following his master’s example, he entered design competitions, winning prizes for completion of the west front of St Stephen’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Brisbane (1882, later supervised by Stanley) and for a new School of Arts at Rockhampton (1883, not built).

In June 1883 Wilson, optimistic of future success, embarked upon an overseas visit to formalise his professional qualifications. In Glasgow he studied for admission as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). This entailed an examination to test knowledge of architectural styles, geometrical and perspective drawing, shoring and sanitary science, materials, construction, design, specifications and professional practice. Wilson passed the examination in 1884, within two years of its introduction, to become the only Queensland member of the RIBA at the time and its first locally trained Associate. He visited Paris before his triumphant return.

By August 1884 Alex Wilson had opened his own office in Queen Street, Brisbane, on the crest of a development wave then sweeping the city. He was inundated with work and from this time won the support of his Scottish compatriots. His first recorded commission was for a residence for J.B. North in Newstead Terrace, Newstead (now demolished), for which George Morton’s tender of £395 was accepted on 16 August for completion by 30 October. Until G.H.M. Addison’s entry into the local scene several years later, Wilson was unrivalled as Brisbane’s leading residential architect. During 1884–85 he designed 35 houses, including the villas Glenugie, Kemendine, Quinta and Nungurum as well as speculative cottages. He also designed Eversleigh, his own home at Yeronga. This was built after his marriage in September 1885 to Ellen Mary Watt (Nellie) Martin, daughter of the auctioneer and agent, Thomas Martin. In 1888, as Wilson’s prosperity and family grew, he added a second story to his dwelling. Also at this time he designed Hayslope, a grand residence at nearby Tennyson, for his father-in-law, Garfield for the Hon. Arthur Rutledge at Paddington, Capemba for Clement Wraage at Taringa, Leckhampton for Charles Snow in Shafston Avenue and Tarragindi for W.D. Grimes.

From the beginning of his practice Alex Wilson also carried out non-residential projects. These included a Bank of New South Wales, the Plough Inn and two blocks of shops, all in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, built when the area rivaled the northern bank of the river in commercial importance. He participated successfully in architectural competitions: in 1884 for the Wesleyan Church, West End, Brisbane, and three years later for a belfry for St Stephen’s Cathedral (realised later in temporary form). In 1886 he was runner-up to Willoughby Powell in a competition for the original St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Wickham Terrace. Wilson was commissioned for other churches including the Mowbraytown Presbyterian Church (1885), which he later extended. He and his family attended this church until Nellie’s death in 1944. By 1888 he had undertaken 115 commissions worth a total of £81,803. According to Wilson’s biography in the Aldine History of Queensland, published that year, he had designed some of Brisbane’s major warehouses and business offices. It stated, ‘As a Brisbane architect he is now firmly established, and his connection is a growing one’. He was architect and surveyor to the Imperial Deposit Bank, Building & Investment Co. of Queensland, the South Brisbane & Suburban Permanent Building & Investment Society and the Bowkett Benefit Building Society.

 Brisbane’s decade of prosperity ended in the early 1890s in an economic crisis that affected the entire eastern Australia. This was exacerbated in February 1893 by the city’s worst flood in living memory. Unlike many of his architectural colleagues, Alex Wilson managed to survive the crisis, mortgaging his Yeronga home and moving temporarily to Sandgate. He retained his office and took on whatever architectural work he could find, mostly repairs and minor projects. In 1893 he had only seven projects on hand, including the removal and rebuilding of the Congregational Church at South Brisbane following the flood. The Wilson family, in turn, contributed to the coffers by making and selling jam, collecting bottles and gathering leeches for local physicians. As conditions improved the family moved to Mountside, SouthBrisbane, originally his wife’s family home.

By the turn of the 20th century the city had recovered from depression. Alex Wilson’s practice resumed its activity, though scarcely matching the output of earlier years. In 1896 he designed a biscuit factory for Rankin & Morrow at North Quay, marking the beginning of a long association with the Morrow family. Their patronage provided 24 projects till 1916 and extended to the 1950s, including additions to the well-known factory as well as residences for Henry Morrow at Taringa (1905) and Thomas Morrow at Hamilton (1908). Another long-standing patronage came from the Siemon family, continuing to the 1980s and including premises in Roma and Adelaide Streets (1903). Major commercial projects were undertaken for Burns Philp in Mary Street and warehouses for the Bullmore Estate in Roma Street. Wilson at this time produced his best-known domestic work, Home at Kangaroo Point, for John Lamb. It is possibly Brisbane’s most distinguished Queen Anne styled mansion. He also designed Cumbrae, his own later residence at Kangaroo Point, and a focal point for family gatherings until it was eventually sold after his death. This home was used to illustrate a paper, ‘Domestic architecture for tropical and sub-tropical Australia’, which Wilson gave at the Australian Town Planning Conference held in Brisbane in 1918.

Alex Wilson, a devout churchgoer, served as honorary architect to the Presbyterian Church of Queensland and consultant to the Queensland Congregational Union. Work undertaken in this capacity included major extensions to Ann Street Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, the mother church of Presbyterianism in the state. In addition to church projects, much of Wilson’s work was for charitable institutions. In 1907 he designed the YMCA premises in Brisbane, the largest project he had yet undertaken. It included accommodation, a gymnasium and swimming pool, with a street façade dominated by an Ionic colonnade, later removed and replaced by shops. Other buildings for charities included the Seamen’s Institute, the City Mission and the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institute.

Alex Wilson was an esteemed member of his profession. From 1888 he was a foundation Fellow and office bearer of the Queensland Institute of Architects. In recognition of his services, he was later elected an honorary life member of the Institute. In 1899 he lectured in building construction and drawing at the Brisbane Central Technical College and in 1900–1 was an examiner. Together with Claude Chambers, G.H.M. Addison and R.S. Dods, he was a member of a committee appointed to report on a site for a new Brisbane Town Hall. Despite his busy professional life, Wilson found time to design and build a 36-foot yawl, Heatherbell, and to indulge his passion for sailing. He was a member of the Royal Queensland Yacht Club. He also pursued his artistic interests, painting scenes of the Brisbane River, Moreton Bay, the coast and hinterland. In 1912 he was prime mover in a public campaign to persuade the State Government to purchase a collection of paintings of Queensland flora by the noted flower painter, Ellis Rowan.

Alex Wilson’s son, Ron, became his chief assistant from 1908 and his partner from 1920. Alex retired from practice in 1928, and spent his remaining years painting and playing bowls. He died in 1938 aged 81 and was survived by his wife Nellie, three sons and a daughter.