DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Home grown
Sydney’s historic lost gardens are the subject of a new exhibition, writes curator Colleen Morris
AS the pale castellated towers of the new Government House rose in the Domain in 1837, Sydney’s socially aspiring residents began to vie with each other to establish impressive mansions with elaborately ornamented gardens of their own. Daniel Cooper, speaker of the first NSW Legislative Assembly and knighted in 1857, inherited an extensive estate from his uncle, also Daniel, including Henrietta Villa, the early colonial house built for Captain John Piper.
The Cooper estate covered almost all of present-day Woollahra. His garden at Rose Bay Lodge included glasshouses for delicate plants and fine fountains. Cooper had ambitions to create an even more impressive estate with terraced gardens and grounds, by far the finest and most extensive in the colony’’.
He laid the foundation stone for Woollahra House in 1856, on the site of Henrietta Villa, but the mansion remained unbuilt before his return to England in 1861.
In Britain he was an advocate for NSW, took an interest in horticulture and was celebrated in the naming of Hibiscus cooperii , a plant he introduced to Britain, although this is less well-known than Cyathea Cooperi , which Ferdinand Mueller, director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, named after him.
By the mid-19th century the terraced Italianate garden, a style well suited to the sloping sites around the harbour, was at the forefront of fashionable garden design. The appeal of London’s Crystal Palace, constructed in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and successfully re-erected in Italianate grounds at Sydenham in London, had cemented the place of this style.
At Clarens, Potts Point, aspiring politician James Martin surpassed his neighbours and developed one of the most architecturally elaborate gardens constructed in Australia.
For English visitor novelist Anthony Trollope, this garden falling down to the sea’’ was like fairyland.
Large mansions in expansive grounds spread further around the harbour. By the 1860s, the garden of Thomas Mort’s Greenoaks at Darling Point, initially shaped by nurseryman and landscape gardener Michael Guilfoyle, was considered the best private garden in Sydney.
In the 1880s, Cooper had recommenced his father’s ambition to have the finest garden in Sydney around Woollahra House, the massive pile he completed in 1883. Although the estate was progressively subdivided after his departure for England in 1888, it retained impressive grounds laid out in a gardenesque rather than Italianate style, until finally demolished in 1929.
The gardens at Greenoaks and Woollahra House were among many in Sydney’s east that were subdivided in the early 20th century in the face of the city’s growth and almost insatiable desire for water views.
James Martin, born in 1820 in Cork, Ireland, came to Australia in 1821 with his Irish-Catholic parents. His father, John, was groom to the newly appointed governor of NSW Thomas Brisbane and young James grew up in Parramatta. James Martin worked as a journalist, trained for the law, then entered politics in 1848. He was attorney-general for both Charles Cowper and Henry Parkes, and was premier three times between 1863 and 1872.
Knighted in 1869, Martin succeeded his close friend Alfred Stephen as chief justice in 1873 and remained in that office until his death in 1886.
Martin married Isabella Long in 1853. She had grown up in the wealthy splendour of Tusculum, Potts Point. Her father, William Long, purchased Clarens for the newlyweds. Constructed circa 1842 in Wylde Street, it was one of a group of sandstone villas, including nearby Bomera, that had been built on the northern end of Potts Point. Martin added stables in 1856.
He embarked on a 12-year program of remodelling the Clarens garden, acting as his own architect and superintendent and spending a fortune. He converted it into an extraordinary terraced garden. In spirit and in the mind of its creator it was of ancient Greece but, in truth, it was Italianate in style. It was much like the Italianate eastern terrace at Government House, designed circa 1861 under governor John Young. But the Government House garden was restrained in comparison with Clarens, with its profusion of classical statuary, including one of the Graces with a mask of Comus — god of revelry (but also associated with excess) — in her hand.
While the ornamentation at Clarens took its inspiration from ancient Greece, the plantings fulfilled the ambitions of all Victorian-era gardeners: exotic and rare plants from all corners of the globe.
Two sculptors, William Lorando Jones and Walter McGill, were employed at Clarens. Jones arrived in Sydney in 1859 and McGill in the following year. It was McGill who completed the triumph of Martin’s Grecian garden odyssey: a replica of the Choragic monument of Lysicrates erected in Athens in 334BC.
Until the Elizabeth Bay estate was subdivided in 1865, Thomas and Eleanor Wingate at Percy Lodge and Joseph Thompson at Tor Cottage (later Chatsworth) were the only neighbours between Clarens and Elizabeth Bay House. Other villas began to cluster around Potts Point from the 1870s: Lugano (later Jenner), Cambrian Villa and others, their balustrades and stairs, summerhouses, arches and gardens tumbling profusely down to bathing pools and harbour jetties.
Thompson had been proud of his greenhouse and goldfish pond in 1864 but when it was reported in 1881 that D. Marks of Cambrian Villa had a new fern garden in a painted lathe bush house filled with artistically arranged rockwork with a little waterfall and fountain, taste in horticulture reached novel heights.
With the Clarens garden as complete as he could make it, Martin turned his attention in 1876 to building Numantia, a country retreat in the Blue Mountains. After the death of one of their daughters in 1881, the Martins grew apart. Griefstricken, and fearful that increasing pollution in Elizabeth Bay made Clarens unhealthy, Martin’s wife leased Greycliffe House in Vaucluse.
Martin refused to leave Clarens, where he died in 1886. His wife sold it in 1888 and leased Woollahra House, with its stone-walled terraces of orchards and rose gardens, broad open lawns and long headland of garden and shrubbery.
Martin’s fine garden, in a less than lush state, was firmly labelled an Italian garden when Clarens (renamed Wilga and given a smart new architectural makeover) featured in Distinctive Australian Homes in 1925.
Along with Jenner, Bomera and Tarana, the commonwealth government acquired Clarens for naval use in 1941, during World War II. Clarens’s masterpiece, the Choragic monument, was moved and re-erected in the Royal Botanic Gardens, on the lower garden near Farm Cove. In 1943, the lower part of the garden was almost completely destroyed when stairs, statuary, paths and urns were smashed during construction of an underground sub-station. The house was demolished in 1965.
In the 1970s, Jack Gibbs, head gardener at HMAS Kuttabul, began excavating remnants of the Clarens garden. Unlike the making of the garden, this was an exercise in prudence and patience, piecing together the story of the garden and reconstructing it. Fragments of the original urns supplied the detail for reproductions; the summerhouse, remarkably still there, was restored. Although the garden can only be a small part of its former glory, Gibbs’s work over 20 years was a remarkable accomplishment, akin to Martin’s making of the garden more than 100 years before. This is an edited extract from Lost GardensofSydney by Colleen Morris (Historic Houses Trust, $49.95). The book is the theme of an exhibition running at the Museum of Sydney to the end of November. More: www.hht.net.au.
A classic of its kind: The Martin family at Clarens in Potts Point, then one of Sydney’s grandest harbourside gardens
Former glory: Stone steps at Clarens