Judith Elen finds a protected corner of Sydney’s foreshore with an outlook on the past
BOVE the hubbub of Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House, a haven awaits those who take the time to discover it. It’s a smallish castle in the neo-gothic style perched on the once-empty headland above Bennelong Point, the Royal Botanic Gardens spreading at its feet like a ceremonial train. It’s NSW Government House and you don’t have to be on official business to visit.
Until quite recently, this was the NSW governor’s residence and, for a time after Federation, that of the governor-general of Australia. The young Queen stayed in one of the upstairs bedrooms during her 1954 Sydney visit. It is still headquarters for the governor’s administrative and cultural duties but, with the end of its residential role in 1996, the house has been opened to the public.
At the palm-shaded northern end of Macquarie Street, I enter the iron gates of the botanic gardens and walk towards the harbour. After a few minutes, stopped by an enclosing wall, I look down on the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, now part of the University of Sydney’s music department, but originally the governor’s stables. I backtrack to Macquarie Street and walk the few steps to the turreted building that the state’s fifth governor, Lachlan Macquarie, commissioned, together with designs for a government house, from convict architect Francis Greenway in 1817.
Greenway designed castellated stables, which eventually led to the house itself, begun nearly 20 years later, taking the shape of a castle, but not one designed by Greenway. Across the semi-circular drive from the conservatorium is a stone-pillared gateway marked Government House. I continue along a drive hemmed by lawns that sweep to the harbour. It’s profoundly quiet and calm.
The house sits at the end of the drive, a sandstone confection of chimneys, turrets and arched stained-glass windows. With its agglomeration of added-on wings, cluster of slate rooflines and fluttering flags, it looks like a bastion against the wild weather of the northern hemisphere. But its honey and honeycombed-grey stone is pure Sydney.
The high, covered entrance is where the tours start. Hover here under the imposing porte-cochere once you have your free ticket (signs will direct you to the ticket office). Around the corner, like an amphitheatre to the harbour beyond, is a colonnaded veranda running the length of the house above flower gardens, paths and a small ornate fountain set in a central pond. It’s pretty, and sparkles in the sun, but it’s not the royal gardens of Versailles; what strikes about this official former home of the Queen’s representative in NSW is how accessibly small it is.
The entrance halls, stairways and even reception rooms give the impression of an approachable family home. Not my home, of course. And probably not yours. The reception rooms are sumptuously furnished and draped in silks, brocades and wools, chandeliers glitter with what looks like Baccarat crystal and beautiful timber is everywhere.
Our guide, Helen, tells us when the early governors, housed in a badly constructed building nearby, lobbied for a suitable state residence, they had to contend with lack of funds from England. Macquarie, especially, was known back home as a bit of a spendthrift but was responsible for many of the colony’s early roads, hospitals and schools.
Economic recession in the 1840s led to laborious stage-by-stage construction after the house was finally begun in 1836. George Gipps, the first governor to move in, in 1845, was the ninth office-holder and successive governors lived there until Peter Ross Sinclair, whose term ended in 1996. The entrance lobbies are decked on high, like a medieval banqueting hall, with the governors’ coats of arms in stained glass or painted on wall panels.
Early governors did, indeed, tend to be aristocratic, and English, from military or naval backgrounds. They even brought their own silver and table linen to the job. Later governors, without a family coat of arms, have had one created for them using key elements of their lives and their contributions to public life as motifs. Arthur Roden Cutler’s includes a rampant, rose-pink crocodile, reflecting his love of native reptiles and possibly his sense of humour.
The first home-grown appointee to the job was John Northcott, in 1946. All governors since have been Australians, though, until our most recent, still from the armed forces. We entered a new era in 1996, with Gordon Samuels who was from a legal background. And in 2001, the first female governor of NSW, Marie Bashir, was appointed; she comes from a medical and academic background.
One of the many interesting things about the house is its balancing of British and Australian heritage. Edward Blore, the English architect to William IV, who was eventually commissioned for the design, never having set foot in Sydney, drew up plans with windows facing the sometimes tempestuous southerly weather and with north-facing walls solidly closed against the light. Official reception rooms were on the western side of the building, while administrative offices lined up along the eastern walls facing the harbour.
In the first of a line of local adjustments, a Sydney architect transposed the layout so that the anteroom, drawing room and ballroom now look out, past that colonnade of Sydney sandstone, to the harbour.
In the 21st century, the Historic Houses Trust is on a renewed mission to incorporate good local design within the house while preserving its inheritance of treasures from earlier centuries.
Last year the drawing room and anteroom (the ‘‘red drawing rooms’’) underwent a facelift. Looking at these rooms now, and at older photographs, it’s as if a heavy layer of dark veneer has been scraped off the surface to reveal a jewel-bright painting.
Tapestry artist Valerie Kirk used the waratah’s deep reds in the carpet she created, echoing the crimson upholstery found during research into original furnishings and drapery. Next to restored antique furniture,
Castle in the air: Mock battlements and castellated towers adorn Sydney’s Government House; until 1996 it was the residence of NSW governors
Tranquil view: The eastern terrace with original pond and fountain plumply padded and studded and covered in silk, are low, square modern armchairs and sofas, designed by Charles Wilson in dusky damask rose and a startling deep blue-purple. Caroline Casey has created a controversial steel-and-glass coffee table, which reflects the elaborately decorated Meissen porcelain clock and candelabra above the fireplace.
These and other works, such as textile designer Liz Williamson’s golden jacquard fabric covering the Louis Revival armchairs, and Cecilia Heffer’s design of native flowers and leaves woven in Nottingham lace and draping the drawing room windows, reflect the house’s heritage but instill it with the vitality of contemporary Australia.
Colonial furniture, state gifts and early governors’ contributions all remain in an antiques collection that is part of the working life of the house. And don’t forget to gaze upwards at the elaborately coloured, stencilled ceilings, especially in the golden ballroom.
The tour passes all too fast and, though it visits only the ground floor, there is so much to cover; I would have liked more detail about the furniture collection, for example. on sale at the ticket office, is a good supplement, with photographs of the rooms but not of the new work to the drawing rooms.
NSW Government House is accessible only by guided tour, conducted by employees and volunteer members of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. Departure times can be disrupted by state functions or meetings, announced on the website, so check or phone ahead. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 3pm, with guided tours on the hour and halfhour. The grounds open daily, 10am to 4pm. Specialist curatorial tours of upstairs apartments and back-of-house service areas are run each year; on Sunday, September 27, there’s a Garden Music event from noon to 6pm with a musical line-up that includes the Audreys and Bridezilla. More: (02) 8239 2211; www.hht.net.au.
holds its next open day on Australia Day 2010; free entry includes a guided tour of the house. Community or school group tours of 13/ hours can be booked on Tuesdays and Thursdays depending on the governor’s program. Fernberg Road, Paddington, Brisbane. (07) 3858 5700; www.govhouse.qld.gov.au.
also plans an open day for January 26, 2010, and the National Trust of Victoria books guided tours on Mondays and Wednesdays, depending on the availability of the house. Government House Drive, Melbourne. (03) 8663 7260; www.governor.vic.gov.au.
will stage an open day, inviting the public to picnic on the lawns and enjoy entertainment from 11am to 4pm on October 18. The house will be open for free tours during WA Week, October 19-23. St Georges Terrace, Perth. (08) 9429 9199; www.govhouse.wa.gov.au.
usually holds two open days a year; the next is on November 8. The Friends of the Botanic Gardens offer escorted garden tours on the day. Schools can organise guided tours, by appointment, in groups of up to 30 on weekdays. North Terrace, Adelaide. (08) 8203 9800; www.governor.sa.gov.au.
holds one open day annually; the date of the next one is yet to be set. Tours can be organised for school groups; details on website. Lower Domain Road, Hobart. (03) 6234 2611; www.govhouse.tas.gov.au. Judith Elen