Restoring Grandeur: the Vaucluse House drawing room
The drawing room at Vaucluse House is one of Australia’s finest surviving colonial interiors. Today in Sydney there are few that can match its grandeur – the only rival, perhaps, is Government House. It’s arguably the most important room in the house and was built and remodelled by the Wentworths in the 1840s. Surviving elements from this period include a highly decorative ceiling and cornice ornaments, a Carrara marble chimneypiece and cast-iron grate, and a fashionable floral wallpaper frieze. Originally, the room would also have contained richly upholstered seating furniture, drapery and window curtains.
Beyond its magnificence, the drawing room is symbolic of the Wentworths’ struggle to overcome their exclusion from Sydney society. William Charles Wentworth had felt the sting of social rejection from an early age, when his request to marry the daughter of wealthy landowner John Macarthur was rejected in 1816. Despite, and potentially owing to, this early snub, William rose to a position of prominence, his work and public contribution leading to success, influence and power.
William and Sarah Wentworth had aspirations for their daughters and the drawing room was created as a place to entertain with the hope of attracting potential suitors as guests. Sadly for the Wentworths their daughters were unable to find suitors, and the family decided to move to England. In 1853 they sold the contents of their house, including the furnishings of the elegant drawing room.
The 1853 auction left a record of the items that belonged to the Wentworth family during their first period of occupation of the house. In 1981, 128 years later, this and other documents proved invaluable to the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (HHT) in informing a restoration of the drawing room to its former glory.
During the 1980s the heritage profession underwent a revolution in its approach to conservation, restoration and heritage interpretation. A core aspect of this new approach was the growing appreciation of historical sources such as auction lists, accounts and personal correspondence to inform decisions around furnishings and decorations for re‑created historical interiors, resulting in much more accurate depictions of heritage spaces. By adopting this approach, the refurbishment of Vaucluse House, and this room in particular, set a new standard in the interpretation of historical interiors.
The 1981 restoration incorporated crimson damask curtains and upholstery, carpet, wallpaper and paint finishes. Over time many of these elements, particularly the soft furnishings, have become worn, frayed and in need of replacement. In addition, the research‑based approach to conservation has evolved and today more authentic materials are available and accessible.
Over the next year SLM plans to reupholster the drawing room furniture and create new window furnishings using traditional methods, materials and trades. New crimson silk damask will be sourced from a specialist fabric weaver in England as well as passementerie (trimmings, including tassels and gimp).
The design and manufacture of the window furnishings will be undertaken by Chrissie Jeffrey, creative director of Stitches Soft Furnishings, under the curatorial direction of SLM staff. The upholstery will be made by Carlos Rodrigues of Provincial Upholstery, an artisan upholsterer who employs traditional techniques and methods.
The newly appointed Chair of the Foundation Board, Edward Simpson, believes the refurbishment of the drawing room is a critical project for Vaucluse House.
Vaucluse House is in many ways the jewel in the crown of SLM properties – combining architecture, gardens, outhouses, interiors and design elements, all with an unrivalled provenance stretching back to the very origin of our modern nation. The SLM Foundation will be wholeheartedly supporting this important refurbishment.
Story by Zoe Pollock, head of development & fundraising
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