The Criminal and His Cathedral - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Criminal and His Cathedral

francis greenway painting

The Criminal and His Cathedral

By Nick Fouriezos


Because if a conceited convict can get his mug on a $10 bill, who can’t?

By Nick Fouriezos

One of Bristol’s finest architects found himself in a pickle back in 1812: death by hanging, or banishment to a British penal colony more than 10,000 miles away. Francis Greenway’s response? To paint his troubles away with idyllic scenes of mock trials and life behind Newgate Prison’s bars.

Born to a middle-class family of builders in 1777, the baby-faced architect felt destined for a genteel life — and he never let others forget it. For a short time, he attained the fame he so desperately sought, until his own ambition sent him tumbling back into poverty. He grew up in Bristol, trained under the well-respected British architect John Nash and became a builder of some renown in South West England. Though paid handsomely for designing ornate gentlemen’s clubs and extravagant churches, Greenway went bankrupt after one of his projects screeched to a halt when funds ran dry (a recurring theme, as fate would have it). That’s how the 35-year-old landed in prison, arrested for forging a financial document.

Greenway was desperate, not stupid — which is why historians still scratch their heads over why he committed the crime.

Though desperate, Greenway wasn’t stupid — which is why historians still scratch their heads over why he committed the crime. The forgery was so obvious that exposure was inevitable, they say, and any profits would have gone straight to his creditors. Some scholars chalk it up to bad advice or stress, but Grace Karskens, author of The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, has another theory: Greenway, like other skilled convicts of his time, may have broken the law because he wanted to be sent to Australia on King George III’s dime. She believes Greenway reckoned that in Australia, he could literally build the reputation he had dreamed of. In prison, he made it clear how highly he thought of himself, painting “himself in superior clothing, a cut above the rest,” Karskens writes.

Greenway’s gamble may have rested entirely on ego. “Who would risk getting hanged?” Karskens asks. But Greenway seemed unperturbed by his predicament, and his pomp was rewarded when, instead of the noose, he was placed on a ship to Sydney to serve out a 14-year sentence. During the voyage, he talked himself up to surgeon John Harris, who became his first private client. And if you thought the ball and chain would humble the egocentric artist, you’d be mistaken. After landing, Greenway was asked by New South Wales Gov. Lachlan Macquarie to copy simple designs from an architectural pattern book. Greenway replied that it would be “rather painful to my mind as a professional man to copy a building that has no claim to classical proportion and character,” according to Sydney author Howard Tanner’s Architects of Australia. A simple “no” would’ve sufficed, but the bluster impressed Macquarie, and thus began a long climb (and fall) built on visions of grandeur. Greenway and Macquarie’s projects include Sydney’s most notable structures: Hyde Park Barracks, Government House and Macquarie Lighthouse. The governor was so smitten with the latter that he immediately released Greenway from his sentence after its construction in December 1817. 

The architect left an indelible mark on the city, designing domed markets, urbane storefronts and Gothic and classical masterpieces. Those projects brought Greenway the recognition and fame he desired. But they also shared a common trait: explosive budgets. Greenway once designed a castle with a stable block “so grand that it was often mistaken for the Government House itself,” writes historian Morton Herman in The Australian Dictionary of Biography.  That plan was axed by London penny-pinchers, who were growing increasingly wary of their little colony costing a bundle.


An unintended hallmark of Greenway’s buildings was that they were often used for different purposes than anticipated, again for budgetary reasons. A new school became the Supreme Court; a courthouse became an Anglican church, says Helen Webberley, author of the blog Art and Architecture, Mainly.

The building of St. Andrew’s Cathedral — foundations laid in 1819 — proved the final straw. Greenway designed a colossal floor plan for Sydney’s figurehead church, but it came with a less-than-godly price tag. The project was axed after a royal commission decided to investigate the colony’s spending. At first, the governor was blamed for the excesses, but when Greenway billed the crown 11,000 pounds — an insulting amount, considering he had already earned a hefty government retainer — he became an easy scapegoat, and was sacked in 1822.

Builders who suffered Greenway’s prickly genius under royal edict were less accommodating in private practice, and by 1835 he was begging for patronage in the pages of the Sydney Gazette. Two years later, he died of typhoid fever and was buried in an unmarked grave. 

The cathedral that should have solidified his status was built soon after by a man later dubbed “the Wren of Sydney” with less ambitious floor plans, and it wasn’t until halfway through the next century that Greenway would be given an honor befitting his opinion of himself. 

For his contribution to Sydney’s architecture, he was chosen to grace Australia’s first $10 bill. “We believe that Australia is the only country that has portrayed a convict on its currency,” says John Murphy, a curator at the Reserve Bank of Australia. Furthering the irony? The banknote itself was forged when it appeared in 1966, Murphy notes. And Greenway’s grandeur was again short-lived: He was replaced on the currency in 1993.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories