Lloyd Rees moved to Sydney from Brisbane in 1917, after glimpsing, through a porthole on the S S Canberra en route to Melbourne, that "opal blue water, a band of golden sand, another of olive-green trees; above them a skyline of coral-pink shimmering against the limpid air... In her first look, Sydney cast her spell, and it has remained with me ever since, in spite of her brashness and disorder, the crimes she has committed against herself..." (in R Free, Lloyd Rees, Sydney, 1972, p. 23).
Rees brought with him to Sydney a sensitivity to architectural form and a patient, detailed approach to depicting the textures, shapes, and the effects of light on stonework. These greatly admired characteristics of Rees' drawings had been honed in his series of studies of landmark buildings in his native Brisbane. In a sketchbook given to him for Christmas in 1913 (now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales) the artist revealed an early interest in drawing cathedrals. In the first pages, he made a careful studies of the vaulted arches and columns in the nave of St. John's Cathedral in Brisbane, the largest Gothic cathedral in the Southern Hemisphere.
Over the following years, Rees' skill in drawing was rewarded by a series of commissions in Brisbane to draw old houses, schools and churches. Sydney Ure-Smith, then principal of Sydney commercial art firm Smith & Julius, was shown some of the artist's work, and a meeting between the two subsequently led to Rees joining the firm upon his move to Sydney (R Free in L Klepac, Lloyd Rees Drawings, Sydney, 1978, p.123).
In St. Mary's Cathedral, the hallmarks of the Gothic style that became so familiar to Rees through his studies of St John's are again to be found. In a review of the companion piece to St Mary's Cathedral, which was purchased by the Queensland Art Gallery in 1922, the Brisbane Mail commented on the artist's ability to achieve a "remarkable light effect, rugged stonework forming central point of interest, importance of modulation and relationship of tone" (R Free, op. cit., p.25).
Rees' detailed depiction of light and shadow in the Cathedral's surrounds reveals a unique element of it's planning. The architect, William Wilkinson Wardell, had to abandon the traditional east-west orientation for a north-south layout because of the sharp fall in the land. In this work, the artist depicts the twin towers and rose window of St. Mary's southern fagade in the early morning light, with the rising sun casting long shadows across its entrance, outlining the shape of adjacent trees, and emphasising the elegant dress Sydney sandstone. In the street outside, a group is seen entering the Cathedral, while goods are transported by horse and cart in the street. This careful observation was something Rees continued all his life, including in his later images of the interior of the great St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Nevertheless, the artist does not seem to have desired principally to make a photographic record of what he saw: Bertram Stevens commenting that Rees exhibited "a tendency to weave fact and fiction with compositions that are partly fantasies." (Ibid)