A ROMANTIC LANDSCAPE
By Helen Curran, Assistant Curator, Sydney Living Museums
When the English writer Louisa Meredith sailed through Sydney Heads in 1839, she was dazzled by the spectacle of one of the world’s loveliest harbours, unfurling bay by bay.
‘Here and there’, she wrote ‘on some fine lawny promontory or rocky mount, white villas and handsome cottages appeared, encircled with gardens and shrubberies… making, to my ocean-wearied eyes, an Arcadia of beauty.’¹.
Meredith was drawing consciously on the ideals of the Romantic era when she described her antipodean Arcadia. Like all good Romantics, she had travelled to Monmouthshire, on the Welsh border with England. Here she witnessed the ruined glory of Tintern Abbey and scenic beauties of the River Wye—the subject of much Romantic art and literature, including William Gilpin’s 1782 book Observations on the River Wye… relative chiefly to picturesque beauty. It’s to Gilpin that we owe the term ‘picturesque’, the organising principle behind William Charles and Sarah Wentworth’s development for 1827, of their harbourside estate at Vaucluse.
For an educated observer, such as Meredith, the layout of the Vaucluse estate contained numerous visual cues that aided its interpretation as an artfully Romantic landscape, translated to an Australian setting: the sublime harbour, the rugged backdrop of eucalypt bushland, the Gothic Revival house and outbuildings. In a c1841 watercolour by Conrad Martens, the then-secluded house and its landscaped grounds might as well have been Tintern Abbey, as depicted by Gilpin the century before.
When the garden was restored in the early 1990s, Sydney Living Museums turned to paintings like Martens’, as well as photographs, archaeological investigations and family correspondence for evidence of the garden in the Wentworth’s time, which had been gradually obscured over the course of the 20th century.
Sarah, a practical woman, gave instructions for the maintenance of the gardens and grounds during the family’s long absences; the kitchen garden, now re-created behind the house, was famed for the quality of its produce. Fruit including William Charles’ pineapples, sugar cane, pears and apples won prizes at floral and horticultural shows.
Open Wednesday to Sunday 10amⓖ4pm
Gardens open daily
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Wentworth Road, Vaucluse, NSW 2030
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Today Vaucluse House is one of the few 19th century estates where the orchestrated vision of landscape is still largely preserved. As for most Victorian estates, the garden becomes more elaborate and better presented the closer you get to the house – a subsequence of carefully contrived views designed to demonstrate its owners’ wealth and taste. This hierarchy of space continues inside. The austere entranceway increases the impact of the most important and elegant room in the house: the drawing room. Not surprisingly, it has the best view to the family’s private pleasure garden, where the choicest, most flamboyant plants are to be found.
Meredith’s Romantic sensibility no longer informs the way we see art and nature. But a visit to Vaucluse garden estate still delights the eyes and restores the senses – testament to the enduring power of the Arcadia of beauty the Wentworths created here, on the edge of Sydney Harbour.
1 / Louisa Anne Meredith, Notes and sketches of New South Wales during a residence in that colony from 1839 to 1844, John Murray, London, 1844, P34.