Drawing room, Government House (detail). Photo © Nicholas Watt for Sydney Living Museums GH13_0012
In 1879 colonial architect James Barnet commissioned the firm Lyon, Cottier & Co to decorate the state room interiors of Government House as part of a refurbishment program to, among other things, welcome the new incoming governor Lord Augustus Loftus.

John Lamb Lyon, a Glasgow born stained glass painter, established his Sydney art decorating firm in 1873 in partnership with fellow apprentice and decorator Daniel Cottier. The latter had set up a similar business in London and had strong links to prominent artists and designers including William Morris, E W Godwin and Bruce J Talbert. 

B/W photo showing richly furnished drawing room with elaborate sofas, tables, chairs, paintings, curtains, carpet and chandelier.
Drawing room, Government House, Sydney. Photographer unknown, 1887. State Library of NSW, Government Printing Office 1-05535

Graphic that says Insites - published in insites magazine
This artilce was originally written by former SLM supervising curator Ann Toy and appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Insites.

The firm's work at Government House strongly reflects the influence of the Aesthetic Movement. The drawing room ceiling incorporated hand-painted medallions of pre-Raphaelite style allegorical portraits of the four seasons and night and day, within compartments of stencilled stylised naturalistic designs including characteristic vases of flowers. The decorative schemes for the stencilled wall friezes, fillings and dados were inspired by neo-Egyptian, neo-Grecian and Anglo-Japanese ornamental styles.

The tertiary colour scheme, both in the drawing and ante room, of contrasting lightly toned ceilings, drab olive walls, a darker dado balanced by crimson upholstery, draperies and carpet, was influenced by the colour theory of prominent early 19th-century Scottish decorator David Ramsay Hay. To complement the painted decoration, the firm coordinated the refurbishment of all the soft furnishings: supplying a crimson foliate carpet, new drapery, portieres and seating upholstery in rich crimson silk damask figured with palms and ferns and sets of lace inner curtains. Contemporary records from 1879 to the 1890s refer to these opulent interiors as the 'red drawing rooms'.


To complement the painted decoration, the firm coordinated the refurbishment of all the soft furnishings: supplying a crimson foliate carpet, new drapery, portieres and seating upholstery in rich crimson silk damask ...


Between 1981 and 1985 the NSW Department of Public Works undertook a program of major restoration and conservation of the State rooms. The original Lyon, Cottier & Co ceiling decoration c1879 were conserved but their contemporary decorative wall schemes were only partially reinstated as the house was still considered a private residence and subject to the personal tastes of the vice-regal occupants.

The Government House Conservation and Management Plan (1997) identified the ante and drawing room interiors with their surviving Lyon, Cottier & Co ceilings as being of 'exceptional significance'. The plan states that these ceilings represent 'one of the finest examples of high-art, interior decoration in Australia'.

As a result, documentary and physical evidence of the 1879 decorative wall schemes were re-investigated. Information and improved analysis of paint layering and composition has enabled the HHT to accurately reinstate the contemporary 1879 wall and dado decoration of these rooms.  The program of refurbishment in the State rooms is particularly urgent as the existing furnishings - carpets, curtains, blinds and upholstery - first installed during the 1980s are now showing advanced signs of wear. Considering the HHTs expertise in restoring historic interiors and the wealth of physical and documentary evidence, it would have been simple to restore the room completely back to its 1879 appearance.

However, the HHT's policy to recognise the ongoing use of the house as a 'working State House', rather than a historic house museum' frozen in time', identified the need to re-establish Government House as a showcase for the best contemporary Australian art, craft and design. This would continue a number of significant traditions established in the mid 1840s to use local materials and craftspeople, and the role that the building has played influencing innovative and creative interior design and art in Australia.


... rather than a historic house museum frozen in time, [we] identified the need to re-establish Government House as a showcase for the best contemporary Australian art, craft and design.

It is with this in mind that the To Furnish a Future policy, of commissioning contemporary artists and designers to collaborate on the refurbishment of the State rooms, through diverse measures including acquisitions, commissions or temporary loans, has been adopted. Critically the policy also recognises the need to conserve and respect the heritage significance of the historic interiors and the collection at Government House and to ensure that all future furnishings and acquisitions respect this integrity.   

To achieve this vision, extensive research was undertaken with a team of consultants with expertise in historic and contemporary interior design and Australian decorative arts: Dr James Broadbent, Dr Grace Cochrane, Bruce Carnie, George Freedman and Elizabeth Wright.   

Four artists with quite diverse styles and artistic backgrounds: fashion designer and painter Linda Jackson, tapestry artist Valerie Kirk, indigenous artist Jonathan Jones and painter Colin Lanceley were invited to present a design concept for a new State drawing room carpet.

The brief established several key considerations: firstly the colour crimson was to be a significant feature and the contemporary design was to complement the historic Lyon, Cottier & Co painted decoration and the crimson silk damask. This has been rewoven by French textile firm Le Lievre from a sample of the original drawing room damask c1879 and will be used to recreate new draperies and upholsteries for both interiors. 

The four design concepts were reviewed by an advisory panel consisting of SLM Director Peter Watts, Trustee Peter Tonkin and independents: Judith O'Callaghan, Head of Interior Design, University of New South Wales and architect lain Halliday. 

Woman with short cropped hair and necklace, giving presentation with pictures on flip charts.
Valerie Kirk presenting her carpet design concept at Government House. Photo © JOM for Sydney Living Museums

Scottish born Valerie Kirk, who studied tapestry and design at the Edinburgh College of Art and Goldsmith's College, London, was awarded the commission. Kirk came to Australia in 1979 to work as a weaver at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, and remained to teach and work on exhibitions, commissions and community tapestries. In 1991 she was appointed Head of Textiles at the School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra . In developing her own practice in Australia, Valerie has initiated a number of major textile projects such as SHIFT and Challenging the Ideas of Cloth; developed conferences, master classes, seminars and exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally. 

Her work is represented in the collections of the ACT Legislative Assembly, Australian National University and major museum collections.

According to the artist,

The starting point for the design process was spending time at Government House, studying the elaborate, formal interior with its layering of history and the magnificent exterior of the building. I looked at the surrounding environment - vibrant formal gardens, sandstone foreshores, the harbour and changing sky. 

In the nearby Museum of Sydney, on the site of first Government House, I was inspired by an image of the house on a cleared area of land carved from the bush with sandstone and sea in the foreground. The picture is a forceful reminder of the colonisation of Australia and our ongoing relationship to the land. Returning to the house, I made detailed studies considering aesthetics, relationship of the layered history of elements within the building, functionality, changing ideas of interior fashion/taste/ style, colour and scale.

Richly furnished room featuring deep red carpet, furniture, chandelier, wallpaper and wall lamps, curtains and large french doors.
Drawing room, Government House, 2013. Photo © Nicholas Watt for Sydney Living Museums GH13_0007

My intention is to present carpet designs which sit well aesthetically within Government House. They complement the Lyon, Cottier & Co 1879 ceiling decorations reflecting their basis of geometric structure and sense of circular movement/spot patterns. However, my designs do not attempt to mimic or copy the existing decor, as this would detract from it. 'The carpets and rugs will be evidence of this period in time by their design and production technology. They will be an extension of my existing work in tapestry design and weaving as I can bring my conceptual/design skills and knowledge of materials and processes to the project. It is important that the carpet should hold meaning and content appropriate to the history and place in our political and social map of Government House.

The carpet is a single image developed from the textures and patination of natural elements surrounding Government House. It reflects the elements, ageing and weathering. The colour is vibrant. mid to dark tones of a crimson palette derived from looking at the Waratah.   

The design is contemporary in its refined and sophisticated use of colour/tone, providing minimal distraction from the existing historic elements of the interior. Its strength and boldness is in its simplicity and ability to provide a warm, welcoming and comforting element in the formal rooms.

Geometric glass coffee table, on crimson carpet, Government House.
Caroline Casey's reflective glass and steel coffee table and waratah inspired crimson carpet in the Drawing Room at Government House. Photo © Jody Pachniuk for Sydney Living Museums


This project is expected to be completed by July 2007. The proposed collaboration with Valerie Kirk, regarded as an 'important international figure in the world of contemporary tapestry', is exciting and challenging as the HHT seeks to achieve a balance of the 'new' and the 'old'.Unknown Object