Purnell in Melbourne
Back in Melbourne after ten years in China, some of Purnell’s buildings appear to have been influenced by his years in Guangzhou. Some were for local Chinese clients, some had Chinese-style elements and some had Chinese names.
NARRATOR: Purnell's business soared within a short time because of an historical opportunity. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion had led to the invasion of Beijing by Allied forces. From then on, China was waiting to be rebuilt.
-From an architect's point of view, though, I think this was probably a great time to go to China, because many of these buildings that the Europeans owned were destroyed by the Boxers, by these rebels. And so after the Boxer Rebellion, after the Boxers were in a sense put down, there was a lot of work for architects to rebuild these European buildings in China. And so I guess from a timing point of view, it was perfect for Arthur Purnell to go to China at that particular time.
NARRATOR: In 1908, Purnell's business reached a pinnacle. He got married and lived on Shamian Island with his wife. Their life was very comfortable, dinner parties in Guangzhou International Club, boating on Pearl River, picnic in the countryside, tennis at Shamien tennis courts, et cetera. However, his wife could not adapt to the humid climate of Guangzhou and was in poor health. Two years later, they left Guangzhou and settled permanently in Melbourne, Australia. Purnell regretted leaving China.
-But he really did not want to come back, I don't think. All his professional life, he was interested in being in Guangzhou and I think he regretted coming back. The thing is, when he came back to Melbourne, he had to start again. After designing these major buildings in Guangzhou, he was-- he really had to start from scratch.
NARRATOR: In Melbourne from 1910 to 1950, Purnell designed hundreds of buildings. However, his starting point was in Chinatown. This was very rare during a time when Chinese people were discriminated against in society.
-And so the interesting thing is, who did he approach? Where did he try and look for work? Well, he looked for work where he was familiar with. And that was the businessman in Chinatown in Melbourne. His first paying job, as far as I can tell, is designing a veranda for the Canton Cafe in Swanston Street. He also did work for several Chinese merchants in Little Bourke Street and a couple of these buildings still exist. But this is 1910. He was interested in making these connections with the Chinese community in Melbourne, which I think is very unusual.
NARRATOR: In 1914, Purnell designed for himself this European-style building in Armadale. It has a Chinese name, Shamian, the little island which Purnell lived on in Guangzhou. From this, we can see how much he missed China.
-He called this house "Shamian," after the island that he lived on in Guangzhou. And I think it indicates that he really wanted to remain in China. He didn't really want to come home. And in fact, his wife's insistence that they can home in 1910 caused disagreements between husband and wife that really lasted all of their lives. They-- they had an unhappy marriage from that point on. And in fact, in the 1920s, divorced but remarried each other later, which in a sense is another illustration of his eccentric sort of personality.
NARRATOR: The main feature of this beautiful house is its rooftop balcony. You could imagine Purnell and his wife enjoying a cocktail in the afternoon. This is a typical Purnell-styled house. I It is delicate in detail with elegant brickwork. In the early 20th century, brick houses in Australia weren't so refined.
-A feature of the house, of course, is the garden. Purnell's wife, Jane Purnell, was a very clean gardener. But over the years, the garden would have changed quite a bit, partly because in Purnell's day, they owned the block next door. And so the garden was much bigger. However, one plant that may have been planted by Purnell is this Bhutan cypress, this particular cypress here. Purnell used this sort of plant in other buildings that he designed.
A good example is Tsohshaan Mansions, which is very nearby to this house, a set of beautiful apartments that he designed that also have a Chinese name and are very Chinese in the-- in their design. And certainly, the play between the house and the garden was something that Purnell was conscious of in many of his designs.
NARRATOR: However, he did not leave here for long and sold it rather quickly. He then built another house in the neighboring suburb of Toorak and named it Shamian again. It is a pity that the house is no longer around, as it was lost in a fire. That house was also of a similar artistic style. This is his third house named Shamian, but he was perhaps a bit bored with that. So he changed the name and called it "Shantien," which means "mountain vines." He spent most of his life in this house with his wife and daughter. Purnell designed this house in 1924 for a car dealer, Barlow, one of his best clients.