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Saturday, 28 September 2013


Six hand-coloured studies of a house

"I don't divide architecture, landscape and gardening: to me they are one."
Luis Barragan

I bought these six postcard sized photos about six years ago in Perth Australia. Though I doubt they were taken in Perth, certain details make me think the house is, or was, in Australia. The most convincing is the corrugated tin water tank attached to the side of the house, something so typically Australian we could call it vernacular. Another is that the trees on the distant horizon in this image have the distinct appearance of eucalypts. This is one of those details you can’t really call evidence but as with some species of pine and fir, you get a feeling what the tree is from a distant silhouette. It’s a very Australian house, which is to say it’s also very English.

The house is built in the classic arts and crafts style known in Australia as Federation, which would put it anywhere between 1895 and 1920. As the name suggests, it was the prevalent style around the time of federation in 1901, which was British in outlook with some native improvements. One of them was the verandah, essential for keeping the sun out, but note the timber facing in the Tudor style. Well into the 1940s Australia was still measuring itself against the old country and to build a mansion meant building something British, especially if it sat on a couple of acres. 

The hand colouring is exact, indicating a trained colourist or artist was responsible for that. Most likely, once the garden was established, which could be a couple of years after the house was built, a professional photographer came in to take photos for a presentation album. These in the post might only represent a portion of the photos in that album, which would be kept in a cabinet and brought out on special occasions. 

If I were a botanist I could identify the plants here, say more than they were trees and ferns and possibly give the house a precise location. What matters more to us however is the Italianate - we could go further and call it faux Italianate – scene here. It tells us a lot about the owner; a person (the man of the house may have had the money but the woman was as likely to hold power when it came to issues of design) for whom that all important word ‘culture’ belonged anywhere but Australia. They wanted it all. The house would be British, set in a landscape of cultivated lawns and rose gardens, but it would have annexes devoted to those elements a cultivated mind should turn to: the Italian Renaissance being an obvious inclusion. I once read an account of the house the American tycoon Leland Stanford built, with its Middle Eastern room, its Chinese area and French quarter. In designing the house, Stanford and his wife consulted a Sears catalogue and so the Persian carpets, Ming vases and Italian brocade wall hangings arrived on the same day, which was convenient. That statue of the girl in the hood? There were probably thousands of casts scattered around Sydney and Melbourne suburbs.

Full marks to the photographer and the colourist, but I think gnomes placed around a fountain say as much about the house owners then as they would now. This wasn’t just a place for a family to live; it was a fantasy, a weirdly romantic English pastoral set in the Australian landscape. Le Corbusier famously said that a house should be a machine, a functional organism whose primary purpose was to make the lives of its inhabitants easier. Frippery only distracted from that. I think the occupants of this house would have disagreed.

And this? A whole space given over to a ceramic fantasy of England? Well, not entirely. Another detail that makes me think this is an Australian house is the white cockatoo. In fact I’d say it establishes beyond doubt it is Australian, but the hunting dogs and deer? The issue of feral deer is a lesser known fact about New South Wales but they were introduced so wealthy settlers in love with home could carry out one of their essential pastimes. This last photo really brings home the image of a homeland the house’s inhabitants may never have visited.


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