The fountain and wisteria at Vaucluse House, c1920s.  Sydney Living Museums V95/30

The wisteria at Vaucluse House

The exquisitely perfumed hanging purple blossoms of the wisteria have been associated with Vaucluse House for over a century. In the 1920s and 1930s, the magnificent vine became famous as one of the finest springtime displays in Sydney.

The original vine was planted during the later years of the Wentworth family’s occupation of the house, some time after the verandah was added in 1861. It appears in a photograph from the early 1870s, and by 1880 completely shrouded the verandah. 

When Vaucluse Park opened to the public in 1912, after years of neglect, the vine had all but taken over the front of the house. Period photographs show the verandah almost visibly sagging under the wisteria’s weight, and tendrils creeping up to the fanciful Gothic crenellations.

Cover of an old souvenir booklet with a wisteria border
Cover of A pictorial souvenir of Historic Vaucluse House, Sydney, NSW, Green’s Souvenirs, Katoomba, c1930. State Library of Victoria (H2014.76/121)

The pilgrimage to one of the Meccas of Australia ends in a maze of loveliness at Vaucluse House, the old home of William Charles Wentworth … Myriads of pendant blossoms frame porches and verandahs; silvery mauve is the garment of the old stone building, with just a hint of purple at the tip of each lovely raceme. 

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1934

Black and white photograph of crowds at Vaucluse House during wisteria season
Wisteria season at Vaucluse House, September 1923. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums 47857
Photograph of wisteria with fountain and garden
The wisteria and pleasure garden at Vaucluse House, September 2015. Photo Helen Curran © Sydney Living Museums

Patriotism coloured purple

At this time, Vaucluse House was closely tied to an emerging sense of national identity personified in the figure of William Charles Wentworth, the ‘Father of the Constitution’. Visiting the Wentworths’ pleasure grounds to take in the wisteria and spring flowers became something of a pilgrimage – ‘a lodestone to all good Australians’ (Freedman’s Journal, 27 September 1923).

As soon as the first blooms appeared, Sydney newspapers competed with each other to capture the glory of the ‘heliotrope mantle’ – a true battle of purple prose. Wisteria decorated souvenir plates and handcoloured postcards; it was splashed in bright photomechanically produced colours across the front of a souvenir booklet. Indeed, in 1930 the Sydney Morning Herald lamented that ‘even Wentworth House has become more a matter of wisteria than history to the majority of us’.

A charming idea is that of the Vaucluse branch of the Red Cross, whose members have arranged to sell tea each day under the Wisteria at Vaucluse Park … — a veritable ‘bit of Japan’ set in a dear Old World garden.

Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1918

Black and white photograph of guests being served tea on the Vaucluse House lawn
Tea party on the lawn at Vaucluse House in front of the wisteria, c1912, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums 47860
Black and white photograph of three small children walking hand in hand beneath wisteria
Wistaria time at Vaucluse House, September 1939. Sydney Living Museums V93/44

Brass bands & wisteria teas

During wisteria season, brass bands and entertainment helped created a carnival atmosphere for the festive crowds. In 1918, the Red Cross offered visitors tea on the verandah, and it became a fashionable diversion to spend an afternoon under the ‘sweet-scented purple mantle’. A few years later, in response to demand, the wives of the estate’s trustees set up a tea tent under the big fig tree, with proceeds going to the Wentworth Restoration Fund.

The annual festivities became so popular that sightseers were advised to travel on weekdays where possible. And though extra trams, buses and ferries were put on to move crowds from Circular Quay to the Wentworths’ harbourside estate, the weekend crowds nearly overwhelmed public transport. In 1935, 5000 visited the ground in a single weekend.

The famous wisteria vine succumbed to borer in the 1960s, and its replacement has never reached the same staggering proportions as its predecessor. But every September, wisteria blooms along the verandah’s ironwork and drops its petals on the stone flags – a sure sign that spring is here.

Brightly coloured photomechanical print of a stone house covered in purple wisteria
Coloured plate from A pictorial souvenir of Historic Vaucluse House, Sydney, NSW, Green’s Souvenirs, Katoomba, c1930. State Library of Victoria (H2014.76/121)

Well, September and ‘Wistaria week’ will come again, and once more we will make a pilgrimage to the lovely spot and for one afternoon, at least, live in fairyland.

Muswellbrook Chronicle, 17 October 1922

Photograph of the verandah and flowering wisteria at Vaucluse House
Vaucluse House with the wisteria in bloom. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

About the Author

Photograph of Helen Curran, assistant curator at Sydney Living Museums
Helen Curran
Assistant Curator
Helen is Sydney Living Museums’ dedicated gardens...

Stories from Vaucluse House