Book review: A forger's progress


Dr Fiona Starr reviews A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway, Alasdair McGregor (2014), now available at Hyde Park Barracks Museum.

Convicted forger Francis Greenway, Australia’s first Government Architect, and designer of Hyde Park Barracks, is once again in the spotlight, as the subject of a new biography by award-winning author Alasdair McGregor. The compelling story of Greenway’s rise and success in the colony has been told before, most notably by Ellis (1953) and Broadbent and Hughes (1997), but McGregor offers a fresh approach to the old story, presenting a detailed and thoughtful study of the man and his work.

Tracing Greenway’s story from his origins as the son of a stonemason, to his work in Bristol that led to forgery and his transportation to New South Wales in 1814, this book provides a detailed portrait of the man whose designs were so important to the establishment of the early colony. McGregor shows how the young painter and architect’s talent played right into the hands of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the progressive and enlightened thinker who had grand building plans for the colony. Whether through Greenway’s involvement, or through the architect being ‘swept up by Macquarie’s galloping enthusiasm’, McGregor examines how Greenway and the Governor worked to transform Sydney from a penal colony into a civilised Georgian town.

With a chapter on each of Greenway’s landmark designs, including two of his finest surviving buildings, Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church, this book is as much a biography of the buildings as it is of their architect.  Each chapter examines in detail the social and political context of the time and how it influenced the buildings’ design and construction.

By looking beyond the historical sources, McGregor raises questions about Greenway’s personal experiences, attitudes and motives, to discover more about the man behind the designs. Referencing previous biographers, he extends the debate about aspects of Greenway’s life that remain unclear – including his motive for the forgery that saw him transported to Sydney, and how events early in his life probably influenced his hot-tempered character.

Feeling more like a novel than a historical text, this book has short bite-sized chapters, colour images and a beautifully designed cover, that all contribute to the book’s attraction. While loaded with historical detail and sources, McGregor has crafted the facts into a well-told story that makes for a highly readable book.

Buy the book

A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway can be purchased at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum shop, open daily 10am-5pm or online from the SLM Online Shop.

About the Author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.
Dr Fiona Starr
The Mint and Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Fiona claims her love of Australian history, genealogy and world history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother.

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