Artwork of the month

John Campbell (1855-1924)

St Francis Xavier Cathedral and Bishops House, Wollongong, November 1917

Oil on Canvas

40 x 65 cm

Signed and dated lower right

Campbell’s’ painting dated November 1917 is an early 20th century document of the compound that was the first base for the Catholic Church in Illawarra district. The painting depicts Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral, Xavier House, The Catholic Diocese of Wollongong and Cathedral House, painted from the corner of Crown St and Harbour Street in Wollongong. Harbour Street is an unsealed road and the Cathedral is depicted after the first renovation. (This renovation extended the building and replaced the roof with timber or slate tiles. The current Sanctuary today, was renovated and widened in 1933. (See image below)

Campbell’s interest in depicting architectural detail and old historical landmarks is obvious in his past surviving works.

His work recording St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth (Western Australia) may have prompted this painting rather than it having been painted as a commission.

It is typical Campbell in style and in composition. The juxtaposition of European architecture combined with public infrastructure (Telegraph poles and electricity cables span the painting), provide the viewer with a harmonious setting of old and new. I believe that Campbell also reveals an insight into his personality, he is at ease and interested with changes in modern technology, but there is also a sense of intrigue as to how they will interact with the past.

The glimpse of Crown street on the left of the painting, complete with an automobile, seems to be a reference to the close proximity of progression in the district.

This painting is related in style and date to several other works completed in NSW between 1916-1918.

It is thought that Campbell moved to NSW again from Perth in 1915 or 1916. Very few works between the period of 1915-1918 have come to light. Many that have survived are painted in oil, rather than watercolour. Yet his meticulous eye for detail is evident, his colour palette in paintings completed between 1915 and 1918 is similar and he seems to be painting with a watercolour technique, only he is using oils.

History of the Cathedral

The first church to be built on this site was a small wooden chapel in 1836. The original building seated 250 people, but soon became too small for functional use. The first Catholic School was opened on the site in 1838, and the pioneer priest Father John Rigney decided to build a larger permanent church in 1839. This was the first Catholic place of worship in the Illawarra district.

The church of St Francis Xavier is a stone building in the Gothic style, richly ornamented and large enough to contain 1,500 people. Its estimated cost was 2,000 Pounds.

The building was furnished in 1848 with a splendid Gothic interior. The interior has been altered over the years and apart from the beautiful stained glass window behind the sanctuary and the ceiling over the nave, little exists of the original interior.

Since the turn of the 20th century, several additions and renovations to the cathedral have been made. The first addition was opened on 6 May 1906. The nave was lengthened by 7.6m, the original shingle roof was replaced by slate. Two galleries, one on each side of the sanctuary were added.

In 1933, renovations undertaken to widen the church, significantly damaged the interior.

In 1951 St Francis Xavier’s church was designated as the Cathedral for the new Diocese of Wollongong. Alterations were made in 1960, the 1970s and in 1985. A Marian chapel was created from an old confessional. Some of the aesthetic damage done to the church with the widening of the interior was softened with the cladding of the square concrete columns; arches were added between these columns to unify the space The Stations Of the Cross were reorganised, carpet laid and the interior painted in tones selected to highlight the stained glass window.

Bishops House received a new façade in the 1960s.



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John Campbell | St Francis Xavier Cathederal | Day Fine Art