Ian Innes

Director, Heritage & Collections

A flourishing obsession

In his role as Director of Heritage & Collections, Ian Innes combines a love of old‑style plants with an openness to fresh ideas in conservation.

It’s likely, if you spend more than a few minutes with Ian, that he’ll pull out his phone to show you a photo of his latest pride and joy – a flourishing plant, a brand-new bud or a flower in resplendent bloom. Today it’s an old-fashioned cymbidium orchid, not one of the trendy new hybrid ones. ‘I’m resisting becoming one of those orchid obsessives’, he jokes, but it’s a conscious resistance. Obsession is a word that comes up many times when Ian talks about his interests – particularly architecture, music (Bach is Ian’s ‘total fascination’) and gardens.

Ian’s obsession with gardens emerged unexpectedly while he was studying architecture at university: ‘We did a component on garden design that triggered a light-bulb moment, which would become an all-consuming passion’, and he graduated in landscape architecture in the 1980s. But his love for gardens may have been seeded much earlier. Before moving into their own home near Parramatta, Ian’s parents lodged in a house in Concord West owned by his godmother, Lillian, a fanatical gardener. ‘Like many gardeners of her era, Lillian grew her own vegetables, and kept chooks. She grew my favourite flowers – old-style gerberas (which are more delicate than today’s hybrid varieties), sweet peas, begonias, hydrangeas – all “nanna plants”, everyday perhaps, yet in their own way exceptional. They’re so familiar and “ordinary” here in Sydney they’re undervalued, but they’re treasures in other parts of the world.’

Ian’s appreciation for these plants isn’t merely aesthetic: ‘They’re well suited to hot, humid suburban conditions; they’re survivors because usually they weren’t produced commercially – rather, cuttings or seeds were exchanged with friends and neighbours, or at a local church fete. Horticulture is so marketing and fashion driven now, that all the great plants people commonly grew in postwar gardens are vanishing’.

Cultivating heritage

Ian’s entree into heritage conservation came with a job as a junior landscape architect in the Government Architect’s Office. Working under the garden history specialist Michael Lehany, Ian met curatorial adviser Dr James Broadbent and Peter Watts am, then director of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Sydney Living Museums), while advising on the care of the gardens at Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Farm and Rouse Hill House & Farm. ‘They were really focused on gardens – not just as a decorative adjunct to houses, interiors and furnishings, but integral to the understanding of each property.’ Ian recognised that they were breaking new territory in garden conservation in Australia: ‘I was lucky to have exposure to people who weren’t textbook teachers, but who developed an approach to garden conservation based on their own research and direct observations, consciously avoiding judgments on style or aesthetics’.

Ian learnt invaluable lessons in the physical analysis of historical gardens: ‘Even when they’re derelict you can identify what the layout and planting might have been, from contours, shapes, shadows in the grass’. Lehany taught him how to analyse 19th-century photographs and transfer the information onto landscape plans. Together with physical remnants or archaeology, maps and other documentary sources, pictures can be used to ‘decode’ the landscape. Ian took this skill with him to the UK and Europe in the 1990s, where he worked restoring grand 19th-century gardens that had been altered or neglected.

Returning to Australia, Ian spent 13 years at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, managing scientific plant collections. He then moved to Centennial Parklands in an asset management role, responsible for the parks’ landscapes and also their built infrastructure. This marriage of buildings and landscape made his appointment as Director of Conservation and Asset Management at SLM in 2009 a logical yet refreshing step. After his early career relationship with the HHT, ‘coming here was full circle in many ways. A lot had changed in the world since that time though, and I looked at the institution in a new way. Conservation principles and practices have evolved and developed, reflecting the changing demands for access and utilisation of historic places, not only in Australia but worldwide. Renewal and revitalisation are now seen as being critical alongside preservation’.

Propagating new talent

Renewal – so effectively symbolised by plants and gardens – is important in other aspects of life for Ian. As an avid learner from his elders throughout his life, Ian now finds it rewarding to watch younger colleagues progress in their careers and pursue their own ideals and ambitions. He welcomes opportunities to work with younger people: ‘Older people can have the benefit of knowledge and experience but you can become entrenched in your ideas. Often a fresh, new outlook is needed, so it’s really helpful to be exposed to the thinking of young people’.

Portrait of man in dark suit against sandstone wall.

Ian Innes. Photo © Tim Pascoe/James Horan for Sydney Living Museums