Heritage Treasures: Henry Hunter altar

By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer

Henry Hunter, Tasmania’s most prolific architect of the second half of the nineteenth century, designed around thirty Catholic churches between 1855 and 1886. For the majority of them he created furnishings inspired by Augustus Pugin, England’s greatest early-Victorian architect and a close friend of our first bishop, William Willson.

The efflux of time has resulted in the loss of all but two of his altars. This painted and gilded wooden survivor was originally constructed for Hunter’s 1874 Holy Trinity Church, Westbury, where it was the high altar, along with his Lady and Sacred Heart altars. In 1888 it was replaced by a fine stone creation by the Launceston architect Alexander North.

In 1919 this Hunter altar was one of a remarkable collection of hand-me-down items, provided by parishes in the north of Tasmania, to furnish a small new wooden church at Blessington, an isolated settlement some 35 kilometres south-east of Launceston. The church was closed in 2001 and has become a private residence, but its contents have been saved and the altar is now in the Archdiocese of Hobart Archives and Heritage Collection.

The painted and stencilled decoration in red, blue, green and gold on the front of the altar is a testimony to Hunter’s reliance on Pugin’s highly influential 1844 Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume, with its beautiful colour plates. The border of the altar and the stencilled patterns across its face were copied directly from the leaves of the Glossary, but when it came to the large design that he needed for the centre nothing was suitable. His inspiration for this came not from within the book but from its front cover. The centre piece of the altar front is in fact the embossed design at the centre of the cover, slightly modified by details from a pattern inside the book.

Main image: supplied.

Tags: Archives & Heritage Collection, News