Augusto Lorenzini: Italian artist decorator

An opened trunk, a fantastic discovery!

On a Saturday in March 1995, the deceased estate of Winn Albury went under the hammer in a Sydney auction room. Winn had worked as a commercial artist in the 1920s both in Australia and the United States. Her estate included furniture and effects from the family home in Hornsby, watercolours by both Winn and her sister Ethel, commercial artwork and working designs.

But mixed up with Winn’s work was a large amount of work by another artist, Augusto Lorenzini. Little was known about Lorenzini, he had been included in an exhibition about Italian artists in Australia held at the S H Ervin Gallery in 1993, but it had been assumed that he had returned to Italy in the mid 1890s. Winn Albury wasn’t born until 1896 so no one knew how Lorenzini’s work managed to get mixed up with hers.

Augusto Lorenzini, born in Rome in 1852, arrived in Australia in 1883 after working in London and Paris as a decorative artist. On his arrival he joined a small but influential group of Italian artists including painters Giulio Anivitti and Giuseppe Ferrarini, and sculptor Tommaso Sani who carved the reliefs on the Pitt St façade of the GPO building.

Several of the Lorenzini works available at the auction were sold, but most were passed in. Some later reappeared at another auction, with his work being further dispersed through salerooms and dealers.

Then, in 1998, a large bundle of his work came to light from the bowels of a locked trunk, which somehow had slipped through the 1995 auction unopened and undiscovered. This bundle included exquisite interior decorative designs, watercolours and cartoons for domestic interiors, churches and restaurants, as well as Sydney’s Town Hall, all reflecting the opulent tastes of the late 1800s. Also in the trunk were four large sepia photographs of the ballroom of a long demolished Potts Point mansion called Chatsworth. The photographs were taken by leading Sydney photographer Charles Bayliss and identified A. Lorenzini as the decorator.

Chatsworth was the home of former Mayor of Sydney and politician Charles James Robert, who spent a small fortune on the property, including the reclamation of part of the Elizabeth Bay foreshore. Lorenzini was responsible for the painted decoration of the main entrance hall and new ballroom. The Town and Country Journal described this ballroom as ’one of the finest in the Southern Hemisphere’ and The Bulletin reported it was ’decorated in a style hitherto hardly attempted in private architecture in Australia’.

Around the room large recessed mirrors were set at intervals enhancing the glittering effect. At one end of the room, there were large painted panels of cupids gathering flowers. At the other end, under a music gallery with a railing or ironwork in white and gold, were painted female allegorical figures representing the four seasons.

This collection of Lorenzini’s works was purchased by the Historic Houses Trust who then commenced the arduous task of researching Lorenzini’s life and work. A little bit of sleuthing discovered that Lorenzini had not returned to Italy as previously thought, but had retreated in the mid 1890s to fruit growing obscurity at Castle Hill where he died in 1921. Research into Lorenzini’s work discovered that Chatsworth was quickly followed by the decoration of Gunsler’s Café in Pitt Street. Gunsler was a legendary figure in 19th century catering circles. He had opened the Café Gunsler in Collins Street Melbourne in 1873, selling it six years later for the huge sum of 26,000 pounds. His new Sydney restaurant occupied three floors, providing a gentlemen’s saloon with a bar and an oyster buffet, a ladies and gentleman’s dining room, a ladies salon, a banqueting hall and five small salons for private dinner parties and after theatre suppers.

The exciting thing about this discovery of Lorenzini is not the final works as most have been demolished, but rather the number and range of working drawings for interior designs and decorations. His beautifully opulent and theatrical style of allegorical decoration was part of the character of the 1880s and 1890s. Lorenzini for a short period was a leading proponent in interior design and decoration in Australian society.

In the 1880’s there was a thriving interior decoration industry in Sydney. Lorenzini was one of several artisans including Lyon, Cottier and Co who painted ceilings of Government House and Messrs Palmer & Weekes who worked on the Garden Palace at the Sydney International exhibition. But it was Lorenzini’s large-scale allegorical and historical paintings that set him apart.

The tradition of elaborate art decoration died with the terrible depression of the late 1890s and has yet to be seen in architecture and interior design again.

In the late 1880’s Lorenzini purchased 20 acres at Castle Hill. Throughout the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, he made his living partly from painting and partly from fruit growing. When Lorenzini applied for naturalisation in September 1904, he described himself as an 'art decorator and orchardist’. In 1914 Lorenzini was declared insolvent, moving permanently to the orchard and fading into obscurity.

Meanwhile, Lorenzini’s connection with Winn Albury is still unresolved. It is quite likely that Winn’s aunt, Louisa Lawson (mother of Henry) knew Lorenzini. During the 1890’, Louisa published a feminist newspaper The Dawn from Phillip St where Lorenzini had a studio.

But there’s also a possibility that Winn Albury was a student of Lorenzini’s. He was never a great orchardist, and presumably supplemented his income by taking private students. Winn and her family had moved to Hornsby around 1911 and since Hornsby is not too far from Castle Hill, it is not drawing too long a bow to make this conclusion.

We will never really know for certain the exact relationship between Winn and the Italian artist. Lorenzini didn’t have any children nor did his nephew who also lived in Sydney, it is therefore very likely that his wife, Maria, gave his work away after his death to students or family friends.

The Historic Houses Trust featured an exhibition of Augusto Lorenzini’s work including working drawings, watercolours, oils, painted panels and photographs from Chatsworth at Elizabeth Bay House.

Sponsored by SBS and Tress Cock and Maddox Lawyers Australia

2 June 2001 - 4 November 2001
22°  Showers