St John the Divine Church, Branxton (1873-1881) by John Horbury Hunt
St John’s Church, Branxton, is a structure of modest scale and grand gesture. Set among dwellings of a similar size in the small country town an hour north west of Newcastle, it is dwarfed by the gum trees that surround it.
Yet, this little buttressed brick church, replete with bell tower and rounded apse, is sheltered by a series of decorative arched timber frames that outnumber those of the nave of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.
Designed by John Horbury Hunt, St John’s resides within a broader late-nineteenth century program of regional towns constructing ‘prestige’ churches attached to a broader Diocese that privileged quality over cost. While the ornate composition has been compromised over time, many of the aspirational qualities of the original design remain.
St John the Divine Church. Image: Supplied
As chief assistant to Edmund Blacket in the five years preceding the establishment of his own practice in 1869, Hunt’s unique design attitude and strength of personality have so-labelled this Blacket’s ‘queer period’. His eccentricities are evident in his design work both under Blacket, and in his own practice. St John’s in Branxton is no exception.
Built in soft red brick, it’s finish is modest yet highly detailed. Articulated mouldings run the length of its elevations, traveling around the soft curve of the semicircular apse. These articulations are incorporated into the window detailing of the bell tower, arching over the slightly pointed stained glass windows, a formal detail typical of Hunt’s work. Perhaps a defining feature of the elevation is robust buttresses that brace the relatively humble brick walls and roof.
The rhythm these buttresses play out along the nave are traversed by the diagonal orientation of the bell tower. Larger buttresses travel up the tower that stands over the church narthex, which steps down below the ridge of the nave. There is a dramatic quality to the composition that goes beyond the scale of what is little more than a Chapel.
Internal ceiling of St John the Divine Church, Branxton, NSW. Image: Supplied.
Perhaps the greatest contrast in the design of St John’s is between the modest red tiles (originally timber shingles) of the deep pitched roof, and the ornate arched timber detailing of the apse and nave. Here, 150x100mm timbers translate the regular pitched board work over straight rafters to a delicate barrel vault, essentially acting as trussing.
This vaulting, of less than half a metre in spacing, step over half a metre beyond the interior walls, supported by simply detailed sprockets. The result of a later, relatively unsympathetic renovation, the interior brickwork is rendered off-white, exaggerating the contrast of the timber work to its supporting walls. The barrel travels down the nave, following the curve of the apsidal plan.
It stops just short of the apex that flattens to frame the stained-glass windows standing over the alter. Two tapered timber beams diagonally traverse the space above to meet at the alter’s centre point. It’s consistency and scale evoke the delicacy of a timber ship’s hull.
Hunt’s design, perhaps full of contradictions, is emblematic of Victorian aspirations in regional church design. It is nested within a range of religious buildings he designed throughout his career, which bear a similar personality.
They often possess a level of grandiosity beyond their scale, a keen level of timber detailing for which Hunt was renowned, and in this case, a rounded apse that was regrettably proposed more often than it was realised.
Written and research by volunteers of the Australian Architecture Association. Edited by Tone Wheeler. You can find out more about the AAA at: https://www.architecture.org.au