Joseph Clarkson Maddison was born in Greenwich, Kent, England, on 26 February 1850, the son of John Maddison, a beer retailer, and his wife, Matilda Clarkson. In 1867 Maddison became a pupil of the architect George Morris and a student at a branch of the National Art Training School in South Kensington. Emigrating to Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1872, he settled in Christchurch and set himself up in business as an architect, building surveyor and carpenter. On 12 October 1873 he married Jane Midmore.
Maddison began designing buildings in Christchurch in the late 1870s. In 1879–80 he won two important competitions: for a new municipal office building and a new headquarters for the Loyal City of Christchurch Lodge; the latter was designed under the pseudonym 'Practical'. The larger of these, the municipal offices, was never executed, but Maddison's success was the turning-point in his career. He now began to receive commissions for commercial buildings. Designs for the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company (1881), Mason, Struthers and Company, Chrystall and Company and T. J. Maling and Company (all 1883), and J. Ballantyne and Company (1889) were all in the Italianate style which was supplanting the Gothic-inspired designs favoured for Christchurch commercial architecture in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1887 Maddison's stature was recognised by his election as a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
After about 1890 the bulk of Maddison's output consisted of designs for hotels and industrial buildings, notably freezing works. His many years of service on the City of Christchurch Licensing Committee produced numerous commissions for hotels, a field he had entered in the late 1870s. He built a number of hotels to accommodate the crowds who flocked to Christchurch for the New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906–7. In these works Maddison adopted, almost exclusively, routine Italianate designs.
Maddison's concentration on designing freezing works was due partly to the commercial advantage of monopolising the market in a new, expanding industry, but also owed something to his predilection for plainness and economy of design. This led him to clients who wanted plain, utilitarian, efficient buildings. During this period tastes in commercial buildings, of the sort Maddison had designed in the 1880s, were tending towards the more heavily decorated Baroque styles. In contrast, the works he designed for Pareora in 1903, built of concrete, brick and Ōamaru stone, were 'noteworthy for their substantial nature, as well as for economy in design and general utility.' Between the mid 1880s and about 1910 Maddison also designed freezing works or abattoirs at Belfast, Fairfield, Christchurch, Lyttelton, Mataura, Waitara, Hastings, Nelson, Masterton and Ngauranga. By 1902 he had acquired a nationwide reputation as a designer of abattoirs and freezing works.
Maddison is known to have designed only two churches: St Paul's Church at Port Levy (1888) and Holy Innocents' Church at Amberley (1890). He used a style then described as domestic Gothic for the Nurses' Home at Christchurch Hospital and the Zetland Arms Hotel; neither were among his successful buildings. Maddison also designed a large number of houses, including Karewa (later renamed Mona Vale), Christchurch ( c. 1899), and Merchiston, in Manawatū ( c. 1905).
Maddison became an architect of national repute in the early 1900s despite his insistence on working in a manner which had long since become unfashionable. The restraint and regularity of classical Italian was the consistently preferred style of a man who was particular and precise in his personal life. He mastered one style and was content to work within its rather narrow limits; when architectural fashion moved on, he was prepared, except for a few major commissions, to restrict his output.
In the early twentieth century he designed three buildings of note: the Clarendon Hotel, the temporary buildings for the Christchurch exhibition, and the Government Buildings. The latter, designed in 1909, best epitomises Maddison's achievements and limitations as an architect: it was in the same style as his winning design for the municipal offices 30 years earlier – 'a very compact, well-arranged and evenly balanced design, in plain Italian'. For the 1911 competition for the new Parliament Buildings in Wellington, Maddison submitted a more grandiose, but still stylistically conservative version of the Government Buildings.
Joseph Maddison was interested in a variety of sports and was an active bowler. He died on 11 December 1923 at Napier, where he had been living with one of his two surviving children; Jane Maddison had died in 1920.