A taste for the ornate
Traces of long-lost decorative features at Elizabeth Farm provide insights into changing fashions in 19th‑century architecture and design.
Few old houses look exactly as they did when they were built. Materials decay and are renewed, fittings are updated as tastes change, windows are replaced and chimneypots removed, and, one by one, original details are lost.
The homestead of Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta has seen dramatic changes since it was first built, for John and Elizabeth Macarthur, in 1793. The house’s original verandah, added around 1800, had a simple row of posts. In the late 1820s, John Macarthur began extensive renovations, including enclosing the existing verandah’s eastern and western sides and then adding a wholly new verandah on the east. The front verandah now featured stout timber Grecian Doric columns, which gave the entry to the house the appearance and feel of a classical loggia. A later drawing shows the columns covered in vines, which must have created a delightful space within. The timber columns were replaced in the mid-1860s with the slim cast-iron posts seen today.
The new eastern verandah was far more elaborate. It had a graceful, ‘tented’ roof – so named because its curve resembles draped tent fabric. Indeed, when first constructed it was actually covered in oilcloth. While today the verandah is supported by cast-iron posts, its stone flagging retains clues to its earlier appearance: a series of small square holes, mostly in pairs, is all that remains of treillage – highly decorative timberwork that was a feature of Regency domestic architecture. Twinned posts, framing diagonal latticework, supported arches containing a sunburst motif. The morning light falling through the arches would have cast a delicate pattern of shadows across the flagstones. Two sketches record its appearance.
Treillage is an ornate architectural form of trelliswork. This type of ornamentation has a long history. It features in 17th-century baroque garden design: in the gardens at Het Loo Palace in the Netherlands is a magnificent re-creation of the treillage work constructed for William and Mary of Orange. The Universal gardener and botanist, a treatise published in 1797, defined it as a garden element, a framework for supporting vines or espaliered trees against a wall. These frames could even contain false perspective, suggesting arched arbours. Within decades, however, treillage had been distinguished from simpler garden trelliswork and redefined as having architectural use, particularly in the fashionably rustic style known as the cottage orné (the ‘ornamented cottage’).
In depictions of colonial NSW, treillage can be seen on porches, verandahs and balconies. Its presence on an apparently simple residence easily distinguished a gentleman’s home from a simple farmer’s cottage. Originally built for Elizabeth, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, a porch attached to the breakfast room at Old Government House, Parramatta, featured curved roofs that evoke chinoiserie, with panels of decorative trellises. In the 1920s, architect William Hardy Wilson recorded surviving treillage on buildings, including on a terrace in Surry Hills, since re‑created (above). His drawings depict standard features: decorative borders of back-to-back or interlocking curves, often framing a louvred central panel, and with elaborate corner details, instantly recall the design of side and fanlights around a Georgian doorway.
The design of the eastern verandah at Elizabeth Farm was likely taken from a series of drawings by the young architect Henry Kitchen, whom Macarthur had employed on ambitious plans for his various estates at Pyrmont, Camden and Parramatta, from 1819 until Kitchen’s death in 1822, aged just 29. Kitchen’s surviving drawings and sketches all incorporate the same arched sunburst design. His design sketches for Hambledon Cottage, Elizabeth Farm’s second residence, indicate that it was intended to have a similar, elaborate verandah.
Drawings from the office of John Verge, the foremost NSW architect of the 1830s, also depict treillage, including archways with projecting curved finials framing louvred panels, and verandah posts containing variations of the familiar back-to-back semicircular motif. Camden Park, which Verge built for the Macarthurs, originally featured a verandah on its southern side with the same arched design as seen at Elizabeth Farm.
A butterfly’s life
Being constructed of light timbers, treillage had a short lifespan even when painted. In England the theorist John Claudius Loudon criticised such delicate constructions, comparing them unfavourably with the robust examples of earlier French gardens:
The English treillage is made of such slight materials, and so lightly put together, that they can hardly outlive the season for which they are erected; this, however, is no objection when they are used in flower gardens, or where they are merely to be considered as garden sticks … but, when added to architectural houses, and made the supporters of a heavy roof, or even a canvas awning, it looks as if the taste of the country were verging to its decline.1
Treillage, he argued, was strictly for climbing plants. In the harsh Australian climate, it was especially vulnerable. In the stereoscope view below of the verandah at Aldridge Lodge, Hobart, the decay of the delicate treillage-work is obvious: curved timbers are already being replaced by straight lengths, and one entire lower panel has been replaced with a simple criss-cross lattice. In August 1845, less than 20 years after the eastern verandah was built at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta builder James Houison was paid £21 to repair and repaint its pilasters, arches and trelliswork, and re‑canvas the roof. In around 1865, however, it was replaced altogether. Cast iron, so iconic to Victorian architecture, was its durable replacement.
- J C Loudon, The landscape gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphry Repton, Esq, Longman & Co and A & C Black, Edinburgh, 1840.
This film was digitised as part of a special project to preserve 'at risk' audio-visual archives
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