Sunday, 3 April 2016

Vaucluse House - Sydney

With a long weekend planned in Sydney to attend the Opera on the Harbour, I felt it was necessary for Mum and I to incorporate a few historical houses into our trip.
When last in Melbourne we'd done Ripponlea and Como House and I was hoping for at least one equivalent in Sydney.
I found two that were open at suitable times. Elizabeth Bay House, just around the corner from where we were staying, and Vaucluse House.

As my aunt and cousins have different tastes, of an afternoon Mum and I left them to their shopping and headed off.
Vaucluse is located out of the CBD towards the coast, at the end of a long, rather windy bus ride. That in itself left a little to be desired, but we were amply rewarded by the estate upon which we stumbled.

Unlike Elizabeth Bay House which is now very much just a house nestled into suburbia, Vaucluse is still an estate. The paddocks and working section of the estate had been sold off and converted into suburbia, but the house, stables, and gardens (kitchen and pleasure) still sit on about 22 acres.

Vaucluse was primarily owned by William Charles Wentworth, one of the men who first crossed the Blue Mountains (though Wentworth would have been furious if he knew that this was what most people now knew him for), his wife Sarah and their 10 children. It was occupied sporadically from 1827 until 1880 depending on who in the family was living in England and who of the extended family the house had been rented out to.

Due to the bus we'd caught, Mum and I approached the house from the gardens, through the rainforest, following the stream down to the stables and house and out into the harbour.

To say it was not quite what we expected is an understatement, but then who could complain at having a tropical rainforest and waterfall at the bottom of the garden.

The waterfall drained into a small stream, which became the boundary between the grass (lawn seems like a slightly optimistic description) and the rainforest/scrubland. As this wound its way towards the house it was said that in the past it had been potable before the house and most definitely not after, as the raw sewage from the house was emptied into this same stream before emptying into the harbour.

There isn't an estate quite like this in Perth, and yet wandering around Vaucluse, it felt way too familiar as I was continually confronted with elements from my novel.
The novel is set in WA, on a couple of estates very very like this one. While many of the aspect that made Vaucluse so familiar are standard elements of any estates, this estate did resolve one issue for me. For some reason I could never quite properly visualise the round lawn at Acacia Estate. It was a simple, large patch of lawn bordered by trees, and yet the similar patch of lawn at UWA did not feel right. Something was wrong. Tramping through the long grass at Vaucluse it was instantly clear that the lawns I had been picturing until now had been too well maintained. The longer, unkempt nature of Vaucluse's South Paddock was what I needed.

The Stables:
Because why would you have a standard boring building for the stables when you can add stone arches and turrets? They're of the usual layout; horses below, male servants above.

Saying that, the historian/novelist in me was delighted to know the size of the stables attached to a house of this size (this was not for those horses used to work the land). I now even have the exact measurements (not that I've taken to carrying a measuring tape around when I visit old houses... yet) which was an added bonus.

Across the drive from the stables was the Kitchen garden. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit this as typically, we managed to extend our tour of the house a little longer than usual and so were rushed even exploring the kitchens (they were unlikely to keep the estate open a little longer than usual just for us). 

The Servants' Quarters: 
Typically, there was both a housekeeper's room, and a butler's pantry. 
In the latter, he was responsible for the safety of the family silver and plate, keeping it under lock and key, while in the former, she was responsible for the safety of the housemaids' virtue, again, keeping it under lock and key. 

What you cannot see in the photo below is the staircase, inside the room, that leads upstairs to the bedrooms of the maids. Servants were expected to remain single and virtuous at all cost and even relationships between servants in the same household were not typically approved of. If servants did want to marry, it was typical for them to lose their jobs in such a house. 

Regardless of the prettiness of the rest of the house, I admit to finding the kitchens one of the more interesting elements of any house. This one was doubly interesting because the Sydney Living Museums who operate this house had taken the extra step of stocking the pantry with jars of preserves as would have been typical 150 years ago. 

They also kept the kitchen fire burning year round to add the extra dimensions of sound, smell and warmth/heat. 

As sizes go, this kitchen isn't bad. It was probably built to cater not only for the family but also for the extensive entertaining that would have been expected of a man in Wentworth's social position... more on that later.
It is a practical room, well lit, spacious and there is a beautiful selection of copper pots and pans. Personally, I would hope for a few more cake tins and jelly moulds, but that's just me.

Due to the lack of refrigeration, as we know it, cool rooms were incorporated into the kitchen complex for the purpose of keeping meat and dairy. This included an area to churn fresh butter and make cheeses.

The House:
Vaucluse is somewhat incomplete. It is completely functional as a family home and an entertaining space. However, due possibly to financial constraints, the plans for the back end of the house appear to have been condensed. This has lead to the house having no front door, and no vestibule, and thereby no opportunity for the grand entrance that you usually get wandering into these historic mansions. 

I think, because Mum and I wandered in from the direction of the kitchens, through the covered courtyard, it wasn't obvious until it was pointed out. There is the typical spacious corridor, mirrored upstairs, and (originally) cantilevered staircase, but there isn't the expanse of space where once hats and coats were removed, and now the ticket desk usually sits. 

When Wentworth bought Vaucluse, the dwelling was little more than a small stone cottage scarcely bigger than the current drawing room (below). As the family, and Wentworth's prominence within the community grew, so too did the house. Unfortunately however it was considerable time before the capabilities of the house and staff were put to the test, socially. The reason for this was that William and his wife Sarah had had two children before they had married, and this made Sarah a social pariah in the eyes of the other ladies of Sydney society.
No matter her generous personality, or the success of her husband in establishing a newspaper that was the voice of the people, or playing the significant role he played in establishing the first University...
As a result for a number of years, Vaucluse and the mistress of the house were only visited by William's business acquaintances and extended family. None of this aided the expectation that the children would enter this judgemental society and make successful marriages.

It always seems a little inexplicable for a door to open directly onto a solid stone wall, but in an age where the visual aesthetics and symmetry of the room took precedence, this is bound to happen. I'm just hoping the door was permanently locked.

This drawing room is spectacular. The wallpaper borders are hand-blocked and imported from England. As are the elaborate cornices, fireplace and no doubt much of the furniture. The family spent several years in Europe on a 'Grand Tour'/spending spree and it is understood that many of the pieces in this room were purchased then. However as this is the primary entertaining room, such opulence and decadence is expected.

Beside the main Drawing Room was a little Drawing Room that opened out onto the front verandah and once the family became socially acceptable, may have been used as the entrance hall/foyer for social functions.

Behind it was the Little Tea Room, a more private and personal entertaining space for the women of the family.

The dining room, furnished with European furniture, and hung with portraits of the Wentworth family.

Upstairs landing.

The 'Second Room' - an informal drawing room for the family. 
Unlike some of the rooms in the house, this appears to be a well-lit practical room for reading, writing, sewing, playing the piano... any of the typical lady-like occupations of the time. 

The Main Bedroom.
The bed consisted of a straw mattress topped with a horsehair mattress topped with a feather mattress.Each day the servants would hold the corners of the top mattress and vigorously shake it so it filled with air and the mattress was a foot fatter again. This made the steps a necessity to getting into bed, in addition to doubling as a hidden chamberpot complete with a container for holding the toilet paper (raw sheeps wool).

Of the ten children born to the family, three were boys. During the years when most of the children were still in the nursery/schoolroom, the middle son Fitzwilliam was the only boy (the youngest was a newborn, and the eldest was already at university in England). Possibly because he would have been surrounded by sisters, the dead end of the upstairs corridor was re-purposed into a bedroom and study nook for his use.

The nursery/schoolroom of the youngest four children. There was some discussion with the tour guide as to the extent to which this room was used, with Mum and I arguing that it appeared to be more than just their bedroom, also serving as their school room and where they would eat those meals not shared with the grown ups of the family. Re. Seven Little Australians really.

Around this time, the eldest sister Thomasine was already married, and the next two sisters were 'of age' and so it was no longer suitable for them to remain in the school room. As a result they were assigned the last of the three bedrooms in the house. Here they could dress for social events
The elder would get the double bed in the centre of the room, while the younger had the one pushed into the corner.

Downstairs, halfway between the main house and the kitchen, closing off one side of the courtyard was another couple of rooms one of which was presumed to be the breakfast room, despite the fact that it received absolutely no morning light

We were racing that afternoon to get back into town to meet up with a friend for drinks, and so didn't have time to properly meander down the paths of the scented garden or taste test the Devonshire tea in the tea rooms. 
Next time... as I have to come back. 

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