Henry Robertson was the architect of Christ Church from 1839 until the Colony's financial crisis halted construction in 1841/2 and was, therefore, responsible for the foundations of Christ Church and most of the stonework. To him can be attributed the basic shape of Christ Church - the walls, sanctuary and base of the tower.
Robertson, unlike his successor as parish architect, Edmund Blacket, did not achieve lasting fame in his profession or a special place in the hearts of the people of Christ Church. In fact, within only 11 years of the laying of the foundation stone (on 1 January 1840) our Rector was able to pour scorn on our first architect's efforts before a meeting of the Cambridge Ecclesiological Society:
"[Christ Church] owes to this gentleman its starved buttresses, its shallow mouldings, its huge western door; its long and too wide lancet windows, and all its distinguishing features of poverty and incongruity; besides many blunders in construction, which were the parents of subsequent clumsiness of arrangement; of the latter are its ill formed chancel arch, its roof supported by wooden columns; the absence of inner buttresses to the tower, &c. Fortunately, the masonry, so far as it went was sound."
Henry Robertson trained with his father and Philip Wyatt in London and worked in the profession some 15 years before coming to Australia. He arrived in Sydney in 1833 and, having been clerk to architect Edward Hallen, entered into practice on his own account in 1835. In 1838 he was architect and surveyor to the Australian Fire and Life Assurance Office. At a later date he was the architect to the Board of National Education from 12 February 1850 until the end of 1866. The Board, which operated from 1848-1866, was responsible for State-funded elementary schools (referred to as "National Schools"). The schools established by the Board competed with the church or "denominational" schools organised under the Denominational Schools Board. It was in his capacity as architect to the Board that Robertson was responsible for the following school buildings that survive to this day, although usually in substantially altered form:
· The second national school at Balmain was originally built as a single storey public school in 1862/3. It was sold in 1917 to the Roman Catholic Church and the upper storey added in 1922 significantly compromising the original design. It is now the Father Michael Rohan Memorial School, Eaton Street, Balmain.
· Part of the Nowra Public School which was built in 1865 but was significantly altered at a later date.
· The western addition to the Fort Street School at Observatory Hill. This three storey brick building of Regency design was built around 1856.
The only surviving church building attributed to Robertson (apart from Christ Church) is St Bartholomew's Anglican Church, Prospect which was built in 1838 as part of the spate of church building following the passing of the Church Act of 1836. It is a brick church in Georgian style and, therefore, architecturally quite different to Christ Church. St Bartholomew's had very close connections with the family of the explorer William Lawson (William and Nelson Simmons Lawson were among the first trustees of the church) and Robertson's old employer, Edward Hallen was married to William Lawson's daughter, Sophia.
A significant Robertson building which has not survived was the Royal Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street (built in 1836-1838). An 1848 publication records that this theatre was the work of Henry Robertson:
"many structures from whose hand now ornament the metropolis. The exterior of the building presents an extremely chaste appearance, and is more imposing than if a more florid style of architecture had been adopted."
Despite these plaudits posterity has apparently not remembered Robertson as a great architect. Certainly he was not adept at the newly re-emerging gothic style, as his efforts on Christ Church proved. His lip service to the new fashion, particularly his use of ill-proportioned "pointed" window openings, can also be seen in his work on the old Scots Church to which he added exceptionally long pointed windows in the 1840s.
Perhaps he was more confident with the Georgian and classical styles, certainly at least one contemporary account of this aspect of his work is more favourable.
Robertson's original plans for Christ Church, 1839.
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