Audio tour number tag to Miss Wentworth's room at Vaucluse House. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Musuems

Eavesdropping on the Wentworths

A new self-guided audio tour helps spill the beans on what it felt like to live and work at Vaucluse House in the middle decades of the 19th century.

When it comes to historic interiors, even the most lovingly furnished spaces are silent. Usually lavish and lofty, like those in the impossibly splendid Elizabeth Bay House, though sometimes raw and unvarnished, like the dappled, down-trodden rooms of Susannah Place, there’s a quietness and stillness that renders the experience, at least for some, unfulfilling. 

Side view of house looking across vegetable garden.
Vaucluse House. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

SPEAKING OF FLUX

At Vaucluse House, home to the restless and influential Wentworth family, the importance of breathing a sense of liveliness and consequence into the museum seems obvious.

Here was a family of movers and shakers. From William's early trek across the Blue Mountains to his blustery legal and political career, to Sarah's struggles with Sydney's high society and her decision in the 1850s to pull up stumps and shift the family abroad, theirs was a world in constant flux.

And like in all homes, secrets lurked in the shadows – glimmers of personal hardship, of unfinished business, struggles and sorrow, along with memories of comfort and joy.

Try as they may, curtains, carpets, chintz, marble and gleaming mahogany rarely speak to the chaos and drama of everyday life. 

Extract from stop 4, LITTLE TEA ROOM

In the six years since meeting William, newly settled at Vaucluse – Sarah’s life had certainly been turned upside down. There’d been the joys of motherhood, comforts she’d never dreamt of, and unimaginable wealth. But there’d also been the loss of a parent, the sting of gossip and, to cap it off, the bitterness of William’s infidelity.

Head of bed showing the watch pocket of red plush fabric and decorated with glass and pearl beads in floral patterns.
View of the principal bedroom, Vaucluse House, showing part of the four poster bed and beaded watch pockets. Photo © Nicolas Watt for Sydney Living Museums

LEND US YOUR EAR

In recent years, curators have become increasingly keen to inject more of the Wentworth story into the museum and 'paint-in' personal detail. Reluctant, for obvious reasons, to complicate the place with digital apps, ill-fitting signage, or media screens, museum curators decided that an audio-based delivery device (without headphones or ear buds) was the most practical and sympathetic solution, to maintain the mansion's other-worldly ambience and spill a bunch of family yarns.

And according to audience research, our visitors agreed. Preference for stories of people clearly outweighs those of objects, furniture and architecture. And while staff-led tours look closely at the domestic world of the Wentworths, around 40% of our visitors prefer to explore the place without a guide, an appealing ramble in itself but unlikely to unlock many hidden secrets.

Man hold audio tour handset to his ear in a sparce and white painted dairy
Visitor enjoying the audio tour at Vaucluse House. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums

GETTING IT RIGHT

Having teamed up with Acoustiguide Australia on previous projects at the Hyde Park Barracks and Elizabeth Farm, the production team was confident in getting a great product.

“Not only is the script strong and stirring,” says Maryanne Leigh of Acoustiguide, “but the final production really sounds beautiful – a perfect fit for the mansion’s epic spaces and atmospheric nooks and crannies. And like before, we’re road-testing the device over a three month trial period, to take on suggestions and iron out wrinkles before finalising the production. It’s the best way to get it right.” 

Extract from stop 15, THE KITCHEN

You'll notice the cooking range is hemmed in by a sturdy wall. This is a draft screen and its main function was to help the fire burn better by reducing gusts of wind. There were of course, other benefits. It gave the cook a handy set of shelves for pots and utensils and a warm area to prove or rest yeast products like fruit loaves and bread. More important, perhaps, was its role as a visual screen - making sure that members of the family and their guests in the main house didn’t catch an awkward glimpse of the cook bending over to stoke the fire ...

View of colonial kitchen with fireplace and stove enclosed by large masonry screen with pots and pans and utensils on shelves.
The kitchen at Vaucluse House. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

WORTH THE WAIT

Guiding visitors from the stylishly tiled courtyard into the family’s splendid reception areas and private bedroom wing, the audio commentary combines engaging insights into each area’s function with ‘personal backstories’ of William and Sarah Wentworth and their family.

Further on, the tour encounters the ‘hard yakka’ world of the housekeeper, butler, cook, scullery and dairy maids, revealing the complex and gruelling activities that once animated the extraordinary kitchen wing, with its behind-the-scenes ‘departments’ and well-used appliances. 

SO STOP BY AND LISTEN IN

The audio tour is free with museum entry and takes about an hour from start to finish. For those less inclined to take a group tour, or preferring more flexibility and adventure, this is the museum experience you’ve been waiting for - bringing the amazing story of Vaucluse House, its hidden tales and leading characters, to life. 

Extract from stop 6, DRAWING ROOM

In 1847, the year the drawing room was completed, Sarah was invited to a gala ball at Government House to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Birthday. The inclusion of Sarah and other so-called damaged women on the guest list, however, drew strong objections from the moralizing gentry. Stung and humiliated by this very public scandal, Sarah was forced to decline. As the Sydney Morning Herald reminded its readers, Whenever a woman falls, she falls forever, she becomes as it were socially dead. Sarah’s brutal shunning could not be ignored, and when the chance arose, they decided to relocate the family to England and bring up their children free from the gossip of the small-minded colony. Plans were soon in motion, and after auctioning off their furniture and leasing out their estate, Sarah, and seven of her children, set sail for London in 1853.

Cardboard luggage tag hanging on ceramic door knob with soft focus period room in background
Audio tour number tag to the Drawing Room at Vaucluse House. Photo Gary Crockett © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Gary Crockett

Curator

It was the dog‐eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator.

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