Government House and Fort Macquarie Sydney NSW from the Botanical Gardens. George Edwards Peacock, 1846. State Library of New South Wales DG 336

Behold A Palace

In June 1845 the ninth governor of NSW, Sir George Gipps, his wife Elizabeth and their entourage of staff moved in to their dazzling new home. Little matter that it was five years behind schedule, £21,000 over budget and still unfinished; it was the most sophisticated and architecturally accomplished building in the colony.


 

Little matter that it was five years behind schedule, £21,000 over budget and still unfinished; it was the most sophisticated and architecturally accomplished building in the colony. Perched high on the leafy headland above Sydney Cove with sweeping views along the harbour and out through the Heads, the gleaming sandstone cluster of turrets and towers stood out like a beacon of progress and Old World civilisation and authority.

To Governor Gipps, the building was ‘worthy in every way of Her Majesty’s greatness’ and a fitting symbol of the power and position of the NSW governor as the queen’s representative.1 Designed by William Blore, ‘Special Architect’ to William IV and later to Queen Victoria, it was a symbol of the strength and spread of the British Empire, and of the colony’s wealth and progress from penal settlement to a proud and cultured capital of that Empire. With its new Government House, observed the Sydney Illustrated in 1843, Sydney was now ‘a miniature copy of the English metropolis’, a place where any Englishman would feel at home.2
 

 

They look for slavery and chains and behold freedom and luxury! They look … for a prison and behold a palace.

Sydney Illustrated, 1843​

 
View of houses and tumbledown huts overlooking bay and large whiet building on distant headland.
Commissioned by Governor Gipps, this view shows the entire peninsula of the Governor’s Domain across the centre of the painting set against the humble dwellings and warehouses of The Rocks in the foreground. Along the peninsula from right to left is first Government House, the stables and new Government House, not yet complete. 'View from the window' by Conrad Martens, 1842. State Library of NSW DG 41
 

A DIFFICULT JOURNEY

But the journey to this new governor's residence had not been an easy one, so it must also have been with some relief that Gipps now settled into his new surrounds. 

For close to 40 years the previous Government House had been the subject of ridicule and complaint. Built in the first year of settlement (on the site where the Museum of Sydney now stands), only months after the arrival of the First Fleet, it was for the time a substantial and impressive building. But it quickly proved inadequate as the colony and the ambitions of its governors grew. With each successive governor, the house was patched, repaired and extended, while various plans for a new Government House were proposed but dismissed by the British government, which considered a new building an unnecessary expense. The most extensive changes were made by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who, with his architect Francis Greenway, also selected the current site for a new governor’s residence and in 1821 completed a stables block without British consent in a determined push to kick-start the project. While Macquarie was never able to fulfil his vision of a grand new residence, the elaborate Gothic style stables (now the Conservatorium of Music) would in time set the architectural direction for the whole site. 

It was another decade before the house itself got underway, pushed forward by Governor Bourke, who considered the existing house well beyond repair. Believing no architect in the colony was capable of designing such an important building, in 1832 Bourke sent a detailed brief to London that drew on Greenway’s designs with instructions ‘to procure without delay from some Eminent Architect in London, Plans and Elevations of the principal Building and Entrance Lodges’.3

 

A New House must be built, as this, which I now inhabit, is extremely inconvenient, Subject to bad smells, Old and irreparable.

Governor Richard Bourke, 18324
 

The task fell to Edward Blore, his combination of royal connections and reputation for economy making him highly suitable for the job. In 1834 Blore’s office returned a set a 97 working drawings, including plans, elevations, cross sections, details of stonework, plaster, joinery and windows to NSW. Bourke now had a suitably imposing and detailed design. But it was substantially over budget and, without site plans and any provision for various offices and servants’ quarters, would require further work in Sydney. A committee was established to review the project. 

The committee delivered its report two years later, recommending a range of modifications. Tenders were called, work on the site began, but Governor Bourke resigned in December 1837 before official approval for funding the new house reached Sydney. By the early 1840s, the Sydney Herald proudly reported: ‘This fine edifice, which well merits, and ought to be, and must, henceforth, be called the PALACE, is in rapid progress towards completion’.5 But these were difficult financial times in the colony and now Governor Gipps struggled to keep the project moving. By May 1843 the ground floor was sufficiently completed for the governor to celebrate the young Queen Victoria’s birthday with a ball at the new vice-regal residence, but it was still another two years it was sufficiently ready for him to move in. When the new Government House was completed, it had cost the unprecedented sum of £46,000.

THE GOVERNOR'S HOUSE

Despite the lavish praise and romantic views the building attracted, as a house it has been both loved and hated even from its earliest days. It was smaller and plainer than many of Blore’s English houses  (and indeed than Melbourne’s Government House completed in 1876), and as early as 1836 NSW’s colonial architect Mortimer Lewis thought it insufficient for a married governor with a family. When Governor Denison moved in with his wife and 10 children in 1855, he proved Lewis right:

...this house is a really fine one ... and very handsome within. The individual rooms are all good, some of them beautiful; but it is a badly laid out house, and the consequence is that there is really not near so much room in it as you would imagine for its apparent size.

Governor William Denison, 1870​6

B/W photo showing sandstone wall of house and wide formal verandah with a series of arched openings looking onto garden
Blore never visited NSW and the final siting of the house was determined by the colonial engineer, Captain George Barney, and colonial architect, Mortimer Lewis. Lewis was given the responsibility of modifying the plans to suit the site and local conditions. Lewis’s suggestion of a verandah along the exposed eastern façade was not taken up until the 1870s, when this colonnaded arcade was added. Photographer unknown, c1890. State Records NSW 
 

Through its history, the building has undergone a series of changes inside and out to address original issues with the design, meet the needs and wishes different governors and their families, accommodate important state events such as royal visits, and respond to changing fashions and technologies. In one of the most significant refurbishments, in 1879 Lyon, Cottier & Co, Sydney’s leading painting and decorating firm, was engaged to refurbish all the State Rooms. The drawing room walls were painted and a contrasting crimson-tone carpet and rich crimson silk damask were chosen for the upholstery and draperies – these rooms became known in Sydney as the ‘Red Drawing Rooms’.7

B/W photo showing richly furnished drawing room with elaborate sofas, tables, chairs, paintings, curtains, carpet and chandelier.
The State drawing room in 1887, some years after major refurbishments by Lyon, Cottier & Co. Photographer unknown. State Library of NSW, Government Printing Office 1-05535

With each incoming governor, a new round of redecoration and refurnishing was necessary to put the house in order, while the constant wear and tear from the scale and frequency of official functions and events demands a continuous cylce of repairs and refurbishments. Over its 170 years, all but four of NSW’s 29 governors, and five Australian governors-general have lived there. In reflecting on the role of Government House during her term of office, Governor Marie Bashir comments:

Never …  frozen in time, Government House has evolved and grown throughout its history. It has accommodated the families and extended entourages of the 19th-century aristocratic governors who were appointed from London. It has temporarily provided as the Sydney base for the first Australian governors-general after Federation, and it has adapted and modernised through the 20th century, reflecting the profound changes that have taken place in Australian society and culture … It has been my honour to host guests from many parts of the world, and from all walks of life, in these magnificent rooms and gardens.8
​​Historic sepia toned postcard image of crowds of people wandering around the fountain and pathways of a harbourside garden.
This postcard shows a garden party on the eastern terrace in the early 20th century. With views out over the harbour and back to the State Rooms of Government House, the eastern terrace has been a popular spot for a wide range of special events. Photographer unknown, c1910. Sydney Living Museums


The People's house

In 1996 a decision was made by the state government to change the established model of managing Government House. After an extensive review, we were appointed to take on the role of day-to-day management and long-term conservation of Government House and its collections on behalf of the governor and the state government, working closely with the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Office of the Governor, the Royal Botanic Garden and Domain Trust, the NSW Police, as well as the former Department of Public Works.

Our job has been to support the ceremonial role of the governor, as well as a schedule of major state government events and a busy program of charity and community events, while also enabling the public to enjoy and learn about this special place. In so doing we have worked with a wide range of experts on the conservation of the house and it contents. This has involved developing a detailed conservation management plan, assessing and cataloguing a large and diverse collection of furniture, soft furnishings, domestic wares, uniforms and other items, documenting and researching phases in the development and history of the building and the many stories that have unfolded there. But perhaps the most significant contribution has been the refurbishment of the State Rooms via the development and implementation of the To Furnish a Future policy.The approach has been to respect the historic integrity and cultural significance of the rooms and their collections while maintaining the tradition of commissioning work from emerging and established artists, craftspeople and designers that was in place from the time of the building’s construction to the mid 20th century. 'The juxtaposition of old and new feels right, the transition looks dramatic, yet is harmonious'.9

Dramatic photo of modern angular glass coffee table in front of steel fireplace on deep red patterned carpet.
Polished stainless steel and glass coffee table designed by Caroline Casey for the drawing room of Government House as part of the To Furnish the Future program. Photo © Nicholas Watt for Sydney Living Museums GH07_0027
 

Sydney Living Museums has overseen a number of refurbishments to safeguard the history and integrity of the building in preparation for the return of Government House as the full-time residence of the vice regal family in December 2013. With Government House once again becoming the official residence of the governor of NSW, the title of the house transferred to the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the establishment of a Government House Reserve Trust. Government House Sydney assumed full ownership and management of Government House from 1 July 2015. 

From 1996 to 2015, SLM has been honoured to oversee both the day-to-day management and long-term conservation of Government House and its collections on behalf of the governor and the state government; during this period two million people have come to view the House and grounds, attend vice-regal and other functions, enjoy the garden or take part in cultural and educational programs.


 

* This story is based on AnnToy and Robert Griffin's Government House, Sydney, Historic Houses Trust, 2011.

 

Notes

  • 1. Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 1843.
  • 2. Quoted in R Gillespie, Vice regal quarters: an account of the various residences of the governors of New South Wales from 1788 until the present day, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1975, p122.
  • 3. Governor Bourke to Lord Goderich, 2 Nov 1832, Historical Records of Australia, series 1, 16, p786.
  • 4. Bourke 1832, pp539–40.
  • 5. Sydney Herald, 20 Feb 1841.
  • 6. Sir William Denison, Varieties of vice regal life, Longmans, Green & co, London, 1870, p278.
  • 7. Ann Toy, ‘To furnish a future: the refurbishment of the State Drawing Rooms’, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, July 2007, p1.
  • 8. Anne Toy and Robert Griffin, Government House Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney, 2011, p7.
  • 9. Ann Toy, To Furnish a Future, The Refurbishment of the State Drawing Rooms, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, July 2007, p2.