Home is where the hearth is

Macleay's Library, Elizabeth Bay House.
Macleay's Library, Elizabeth Bay House. Photo © Nicholas Watt, Sydney Living Museums.
Drawing Room, Elizabeth Bay House.
Drawing Room, Elizabeth Bay House. Photo © Express Publications Pty Limited.
Morning room at Elizabeth Bay House.
Morning room at Elizabeth Bay House. Photo © Nicholas Watt, Sydney Living Museums.
There’s nothing like the sound of a crackling fire or the smoky aroma of burning wood to keep winter’s frost at bay. With only a few weeks left of winter’s cold embrace we’ve asked two of our curators to shed some light on the humble (and not so humble) fireplaces at Elizabeth Farm and Elizabeth Bay House.

Elizabeth Farm

Dr Scott Hill, Portfolio Curator

In winter, the fireplace in Elizabeth Farm’s drawing room becomes the focus of the house, a perfect place to warm your hands against the cold. In June 1832, Elizabeth Macarthur wrote of the room’s grey marble chimneypiece, which had probably been installed around 1826, that it was ‘much too large for the apartment but being put up I am as well pleased it has been allowed to remain instead of being laid about from place to place’.

When Elizabeth was writing, the house had been a building site for many years, as alterations begun by her husband were completed. Bought by her son James Macarthur in London in 1830, the chimneypieces in the dining room and ‘library bedroom’ were not installed until 1832! 

Chimneypieces like these are not created as a single slab but can be composed of over a dozen individual pieces, easily packed and shipped. They were then assembled on site like a three-dimensional jigsaw, and fixed in place with mortar.

Any fan of Jane Austen will remember the famed chimneypiece at Rosings Park that cost a jaw-dropping £800. We have a very good idea of how much the one at Elizabeth Farm cost, as a page of very similar designs, watermarked 1822 and complete with prices for different types of stone, survives in the Macarthur archive. In white ‘statuary’ marble such a fireplace would cost £20, or in dove (grey) marble, as seen here, it would cost £18. Lady Catherine de Burgh would not be impressed!

Elizabeth Bay House

Mel Flyte, Assistant Curator

A visit to Elizabeth Bay House in winter can also be an expedition around the world. As the temperature drops, a fireplace becomes the heart of a room, just as it would have been in the 19th century. There are 13 fireplaces in Elizabeth Bay House. When you look closely at each fireplace, there’s a lot you’ll discover.

Perhaps the most impressive is that in the the drawing room, with its elaborately carved, gleaming white chimneypiece made from Italian Carrara marble, often called statuary marble for its extensive use in statue making. The Greek Revival detailing echoes the design of the house, and emphasises the feminine nature of the room – in the 19th century, a drawing room was considered a space for ladies.

Moving into the dining room (then a man’s space), you’ll see a very different chimmneypiece, made of unadorned black stone, in tune with the room’s masculine style.

The morning room takes us further into Europe, with decorative grey Saint Anne marble from Belgium. And in the library we find golden yellow Siena marble from Italy. Here you can see not one but two fireplaces. When the house was completed in 1839, this room was the largest in the colony, and required a fireplace at each end to warm it!

Returning closer to home, the fireplaces in the upstairs rooms are made from polished, finely grained mudstone from a quarry near Marulan in the Southern Tablelands. Several of the bedrooms also have hob grates with flat surfaces to warm a kettle of water for the morning wash.

Come and visit Elizabeth Bay House, take a sojourn around the world, and imagine what it would have been like for the Macleay family in the midst of winter, with fires blazing throughout the house.

By the way we have over 110 fireplaces across our museums and houses!

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About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Dr Scott Hill
Elizabeth Farm, Meroogal, Rouse Hill House & Farm
As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.
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