Ju­dith Elen finds a pro­tected cor­ner of Syd­ney’s fore­shore with an out­look on the past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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;

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;­

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;­er­

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;­

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;­er­

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;­ Ju­dith Elen

Pic­tures: Leo Rocker

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