Schwartz on Taylor, 'Between Duty and Design: The Architect Soldier Sir J. J. Talbot Hobbs'

Author: 
John J. Taylor
Reviewer: 
Stanley Schwartz

John J. Taylor. Between Duty and Design: The Architect Soldier Sir J. J. Talbot Hobbs. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2014. 272 pp. $59.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-74258-620-5.

Reviewed by Stanley Schwartz (Temple University) Published on H-War (October, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55643

Australian historians and popular authors entangled in a decades-old debate over the legacy of World War I for the Australian nation often apply military, political, social, and public history approaches to make their case.[1] While a straightforward biography, John J. Taylor’s book, Between Duty and Design: The Architect Soldier Sir J. J. Talbot Hobbs, contributes to this literature. Citizenship and profession stand at the heart of the narrative. Taylor considers how personal identity and vocational training shaped an immigrant English architect who would become known as Western Australia’s greatest soldier. Portraying intently the modest canvas of Perth, the author still traces the global travels of Hobbs and his family, focused mainly from 1864 to 1938. The architectural study thus manages to touch on themes of empire, nation, class, and public memory through an engaging life story.  

Taylor argues that experiences as an architect and volunteer soldier slowly transformed Hobbs from a British citizen of empire to a leading representative of Australia generally and Western Australia specifically. Born in London and only arriving in Perth as an adult in 1887, Hobbs held a British identity and “reverence” for the royal family that were common among his contemporaries. Hobbs carried over to his new home the design habits and military activity he learned in the metropole. Soon, Australia’s climate and building materials required him to adapt an architectural style different from his English practices. The new Australian nation, federated in 1901, also generated institutions, events, and conversations pulling Hobbs toward a new citizenship. Family ties, membership in professional organizations, and imperial military duties connected the successful architect to the old country throughout his life, but his experience during World War I cemented his commitment to Australia. A declining opinion of British officers combined with prominence in Australian business, diplomacy, and war memory to provide a newly national identity in Hobbs’s last decades of life.

The author uses standard organization and biographical method to patiently trace the contours of his story. A strict chronology characterizes the timeline of Between Duty and Design, narrowly tailored to the life of Hobbs and his immediate descendants. While the narrative connects to other historians’ studies of Australian and imperial life and development, Taylor avoids striking theoretical or thematic departures from his subject’s story. He does pay close attention to the changing faces of Perth and Fremantle, Western Australian cities where Hobbs did his work for decades. Urban and environmental history themes of civic life, resource management, and physical space are subtly woven throughout the book, joining Hobbs closely to the expansion he helped design and lead.

Taylor’s background as an architect contributes to a unique, if not especially broad, set of sources for his biography of Hobbs. A wonderful collection of photos and drawings of Hobbs’s architectural designs provides colorful and extensive setting through the physical environment for his work and life. The author has also assembled an impressive secondary literature relating to the architectural profession, Perth, and Western Australia. Many of these sources come from the early twentieth century, as a wave of Australian historians newly assessed their nation’s transition from an assembly of colonies to a federation and imperial Dominion. Newspapers supplement Taylor’s materials well, but he presents insights from Hobbs’s diaries and letters sporadically, so that the architect-soldier’s voice comes through clearly in some chapters but is muted in others. Notably, with a few exceptions, the author uses little of the secondary literature on World War I, the British Empire, or Australian social and cultural history.

Thus, Taylor’s consistently tight vision of his topic keeps the book’s position within the historiography underdeveloped. Regarding military history alone, several works could have provided more perspective on Hobbs’s experiences. Ian Beckett’s The Amateur Military Tradition, 1558-1945 (1991) features several arguments about the middle-class conservative associations of volunteer service.[2] Taylor does not connect Hobbs’s youth in families struggling to make ends meet with the adult Hobbs’s pursuit of rising status through volunteer military service, but the portrait supports Beckett’s work. For literature on World War I, Taylor’s narrative conflicts with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). On a narrow level, Fussell argued that proximity between the ghastly world of the trenches and the “rich plush of London” made the war “ridiculous” for soldiers.[3] Taylor, by contrast, portrays Hobbs’s regular visits from the front line back to England to see family and recuperate as giving him the ability to endure the war. While the author aimed at writing the history of an architect as much as a soldier, making these simple linkages would have yielded a richer historiographical contribution.

An excellent but limited history, Between Duty and Design illustrates the value and limitations of biography. The writing does not always grip the reader, nor does the author fully explore potential links to other historical scholarship. The book remains valuable for students of Australian architecture, Western Australian history, and imperial movement. Several compiled tables of Australian architects active during Hobbs’s lifetime could prove to be lasting referential resources for other historians as well. Taylor has achieved a clear, restrained biography of Hobbs and persuasively traces the evolution of his professional career and citizenship identity.

Notes

[1]. Alistair Thomson, “Popular Gallipoli History and the Representation of Australian Military Manhood,” History Australia 16, no. 3 (2019): 518-25.

[2]. Ian Beckett, The Amateur Military Tradition, 1558-1945 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 169-78, 182-84, 191-93.

[3]. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 69.

Citation: Stanley Schwartz. Review of Taylor, John J., Between Duty and Design: The Architect Soldier Sir J. J. Talbot Hobbs. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55643

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