Mention the term ’colonial architect’ in New South Wales and most people would respond with the name Francis Greenway. That is quite understandable, but let’s bring another deserving character out of the shadows.
Who better to speak of John Cliffe Watts’ ability and character than Elizabeth Macquarie? In a letter to the British Home Secretary Henry Goulburn, dated January 9 1835, she asked for Goulburn’s help in securing a position in Van Diemen’s Land (or elsewhere) for her niece Jane’s husband, then a struggling father of seven living at Campbelltown in Argyllshire, Scotland. Significantly, Elizabeth had dictated the letter and even her signature is very shaky. She was seriously unwell, and died just two months later. It is a measure of her affection for Watts that she went to such trouble, despite her frailty.
The letter is held in the British Archives, at Kew. It reads in part;
The knowledge of architecture referred to was not extensive. Irish born Watts had spent just 18 months working in a Dublin architect’s office before joining the army in 1804. However, it appears that he did possess a small library of architectural textbooks, which were no doubt well thumbed by the time he had completed all the projects mentioned.
Mrs Macquarie also spoke of the arduous, 1815 journey across the Blue Mountains completed by the Macquaries soon after the first rough road was constructed by convict labour.
Mr. Watts attended the Governor in his progress over the Mountains to the interior of the Colony and was most useful upon all occasions. I saw him twice run the greatest risk of losing his life in the public service.
One of the occasions when Watts placed himself in harm’s way was during the roadworks Elizabeth had referred to. (acknowledged years earlier by Governor Macquarie.)
A final paragraph in Mrs Macquarie’s letter reads,
In conclusion I beg leave to say that I have known Captain Watts intimately for twenty one years and believe him to be a man of most incorruptible integrity and his moral character stands equally high.
For Elizabeth, integrity meant everything. In writing these words she must have reflected on how different John Watts’ character was to that of her son Lachlan Jnr., already drinking to excess and running up gambling debts.
When Lieut. Watts resigned as Lachlan Macquarie’s Aide-de-Camp in January 1819, the Governor spoke equally as warmly of him. In the colony’s official Government and General Orders he publicly listed Watts achievements. He paid particular tribute to the improvement of roads and bridges from Sydney to Parramatta, and the personal price paid by Watts while directing work in 1818;
His Excellency Sincerely regrets that Lieutenant Watts met with a serious accident…..which from the long protracted Confinement occasioned by that injury, prevented him from conducting [the work] to the present Period.
When Lieutenant Watts shall finally depart for Europe, his Separation from Major General Macquarie’s Family will be a Circumstance sincerely regretted by every Branch of it, whilst his future Welfare and Advancement in Life will ever an anxious and interesting Object in His Excellency’s Consideration.
(Sydney Gazette 2 January 1819.)
‘Every Branch’ was a reference to Watts’ close relationship with Elizabeth Macquarie and also to the then five year old Lachlan Jnr., the Macquaries’ beloved only son.
When Watts did leave New South Wales in April 1819, he was presented with three miniature portraits…. of Elizabeth, Governor Macquarie, and Lachlan Jnr. The gift was more evidence that he had come to be regarded as almost part of the family. All three miniatures can be found in the Mitchell Library.
Another farewell gift was a beautiful, late 18th century gold pocket watch which had been made for Governor Macquarie. The watch movement was by the well known English maker Paul Barraud. Its case had been inscribed with the Macquarie family crest and motto. The Museum of Sydney now holds this item.
Lachlan Macquarie resigned as Governor in the wake of the unfavourable Bigge Inquiry, and on February 12 1822 he and his family embarked for Great Britain. There was a warm reunion with Watts, most likely in London. An invitation was extended for the young man to visit them in Scotland. There, he was introduced to both Elizabeth and Lachlan’s close relatives, including Elizabeth’s sister Margaret Campbell and her daughter Jane. A romance blossomed and on January 16 1823 John and Jane were married. Watts was now part of the Macquarie and Campbell families in every sense of the word.
THE STRANGE STORY OF A SMALL WATERCOLOUR PAINTING
One of the most visible of John Watts’ architectural achievements is St. John’s Church at Parramatta. It was remodelled circa 1817, and Elizabeth Macquarie made her own ideas about the design clear to her husband’s versatile Aide-de-Camp.
As Watts’ daughter, Margaret Elizabeth Bagot, wrote in 1895;
Mrs Macquarie produced a water-colour sketch of the Reculvers, a ruined church on the coast of Kent and giving it to Lieut. Watts she said, ‘Now, Mr Watts, if you can design twin spires like those on this church, we might make that old barn at Parramatta look something like a church.’
There has been endless debate about the sketch and whether Mrs Macquarie, a talented amateur artist, had painted it herself. According to Mrs Bagot, the watercolour remained in her father’s possession until it was donated to Sydney’s Mitchell Library.
SOLVING THE MYSTERY
In the1820s, the artist William Daniell produced a series of illustrated books titled, A Voyage Round Great Britain. Volume four, published in 1823 contains an aquatint plate labelled The Reculvers. It is virtually identical to the watercolour in the Mitchell Library.
The same five figures climb the steps to the ruins of St Mary’s church, with its skeletal twin spires. The same six sail boats appear. Clearly the watercolour was copied directly from Daniell’s aquatint and, importantly, could not have existed in 1817. Mrs Macquarie was definitely not the artist.
Intriguingly, there is one very obvious difference between the two images. Although the aquatint shows a steamer belching a plume of coal smoke, this vessel is absent in the Mitchell Library watercolour.
Why might this be? One explanation involves the circumstances of Governor Macquarie’s final days. In April 1824 he travelled to London from Scotland, hoping to secure a government pension. Financial hardship forced him to occupy cramped quarters aboard a steamboat. The constant ‘cascading’ of a seasick cabin mate combined with the strong smell of oil and coal made Macquarie nauseous himself, compromising his already fragile health. His condition deteriorated rapidly after the journey and he died in London on July 1.
The most likely artist of the watercolour is a member of John Watts’ family, or even Watts himself. It was a precious memento of the church he had designed in co-operation with Mrs Macquarie at Parramatta. It is not too fanciful to think that the steamboat, with such unpleasant connotations for Mrs Watts’ grieving aunt, Elizabeth Macquarie, was deliberately omitted from the painting.
Why was the church at Reculvers chosen as inspiration for St. John’s? Over the years it was claimed to have been the last structure sighted when the Macquaries’ sailed from Great Britain in 1809. However, this is easily disproven. Their ship, HMS Dromedary, sailed west from Portsmouth and did not pass the north Kent coast. A more likely explanation is Elizabeth Macquarie’s largely unknown, but personal connection with the ancient, ruined church. But that is another story!
MORE ON THOSE STEEPLES……
There is an amusing editorial on St John’s Church which appeared in The Sydney Mail on June 28 1884. Those spired towers designed by John Watts clearly did not appeal to the seriously misinformed writer; Even the two gaunt towers, in all their quaintness and ugliness, are comparatively recent to the original……The two towers, which in all probability will be next to disappear, serve to place on record the devout character of Governor Macquarie, who caused them to be erected to express the thanksgiving of himself, or his wife, or both, to the Almighty for preserving them from destruction on a voyage out and home to England. They bear the distinct type of architecture of the Macquarie period and have all those remarkable characteristics which stamp the same, being apparently modelled on the designs submitted in ancient Dutch toy boxes. Parramatta will lose little when they are either removed or tumble down on the heads of the inhabitants.
Dear me, that’s enough to make both the architect and Mrs Macquarie squirm in their graves! Thankfully the towers did not tumble down. St Johns remains intact; a wonderful memorial to the Aide-de-Camp who turned his hand to design and architecture.
Watts eventually returned to Australia. He settled in Adelaide with his family, and became Postmaster General for South Australia. He died in 1873, after a life well lived.
There is an interesting postscript to this story. Lieutenant Watts was replaced as Aide-de-Camp by Hector Macquarie, the illegitimate son of Governor Macquarie’s brother Charles. Here was someone the Governor must often have wished he had no family connection with at all! For the reasons why, CLICK HERE