Australian Club Antiques and Decorative Arts Committee Dinner
Thursday, 27 October 2022
Australian Club, Sydney
Her Excellency Margaret Beazley, AC KC
Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura
I greet you this evening in the language of the Gadigal, the Traditional Owners of the land on which we gather. In doing so, I pay my respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging.
President, Members, and distinguished guests. I must commence by thanking Mark Mackrell for tonight’s invitation.
It is my intention tonight to pay tribute her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to whom there have been many tributes. Some of my remarks will of necessity be similar. I propose, however, to also take you on a slightly different journey of discovery.
But first a little gubernatorial interlude. Tonight’s occasion intrigued me for many reasons, commencing with the menu, which replicates one served here in 1893, when the Governor was a guest. This raised the immediate question of which Governor. There was a retiring and an arriving Governor that year: Lord Jersey and Sir Robert Duff respectively.
In the newspapers for that year, 1893, there are only two mentions of a Governor entertained for dinner at the Australian Club: both are for Sir Robert Duff. The first, on the 16th of June occurred less than three weeks after his arrival in the Colony and was presumably a welcome dinner for the new Governor.
It seems, however, that there was some controversy about the dinner: according to a gossip column – the bane of all Governors – a journalist wrote: “some members of the Australian Club have refused to attend the club dinner in the Governor’s honour […] with the explanation that they ‘do not approve of entertaining an advocate of Home Rule for Ireland’”.
Not an Irishman but a Scotsman, Duff, a wealthy landowner, had been a Member of the House of Commons since 1861 and had supported the first failed Home Rule Bill in 1886. Being a politician, his appointment as Governor was not conventional but seems to have been part of Prime Minister Gladstone’s opposition to peers being appointed to colonial Governorships.
In what can only be surmised, either as a swipe to Gladstone or perhaps, even, to assuage feelings in NSW that they were being short-changed with a Governor lacking aristocratic connection, Duff was Knighted en route to NSW, invested as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George by Queen Victoria herself in Florence.
Nevertheless, the dinner went ahead with “103 gentlemen present.” The Club’s president, the Hon. E C Merewether, who had served as ADC to Sir George Gipps, the first occupant of the present Government House Sydney, was unwell, and the dinner was chaired, instead, by Vice President the Hon. P G King, grandson of Captain Philip King, the 3rd Governor of NSW. There is, it seems a long and proud connection between Governors and this Club.
In an interesting quirk of fate, at our most recent Queen’s Birthday Investitures, Dr Jonathon King, a descendent of both those Kings, was invested with a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to community history and his founding role in the re-enactment of the First Fleet’s voyage to Australia as part of the Bicentennial celebrations.
Back to 1893; near the end of the dinner, as will also occur later this evening, a Loyal Toast was made. Then, it was “The Queen”. Tonight, when we again observe that ceremonial moment, this time to “The King”, we will be acknowledging the intertwining of tradition and the seamless change of our Constitutional monarchy.
Fifty-four years later, the great-great granddaughter of the Queen toasted by those diners in 1893 delivered a speech on the occasion of her 21st birthday. Broadcast from Cape Town, the speech ended with her pledge of service for her “whole life whether it be long or short”. In a part not so often quoted, she continued: “But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do”.
That vow of service delivered so calmly and with emphatic certainty encapsulates perfectly the character of her extraordinary 70-year reign that would begin less than five years later, with her accession to the throne following the passing of her father, King George VI on 6 February 1952.
A year-and-a-half after her coronation in June 1952, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II departed on an extensive Royal Tour of that “great imperial family” she had sworn to serve: the Commonwealth, with countries on every continent except South America and, of course, Antarctica, then, still and hopefully always an effectual ‘global commons’.
NSW Governor Sir John Northcott, the first Australian-born to fill that office greeted her on her arrival in Sydney. Preparations for a Royal visit had actually begun 6 years previously, for a planned but ultimately postponed 1949 Tour by her father, King George VI, due to his ill health, a Tour which was not to be realised due to his death on the 6 February 1952.
In 1948, what was originally the first floor private Drawing Room had been divided into a bedroom and sitting room; the adjacent bedroom split into a dressing room and bathroom, forming a suite of rooms intended as accommodation for His Majesty. A lift was installed connecting the ground and first floors, where paint could be applied on the exterior it was, and three additional telephone lines and eight extensions installed.
By the time of the 1954 Royal Tour, it had been decided not to use what had become known as the King’s Suite to accommodate the Royal Couple. Instead, those rooms traditionally occupied by the Governor and his wife were converted into the Royal Apartment, comprising a sitting room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. The Queen’s bedroom overlooked the garden and harbour, the Duke of Edinburgh’s room faced north with views to the Harbour Bridge.
The decoration of the Apartment was overseen by a leading Sydney interior designer, Clive Carney, with a palette of cool colours as counterpoise to the expected heat and humidity. The wallpaper, reportedly chosen by the Queen herself, featured a soft grey-blue pattern of birds and foliage against a silver ground, with Wilton carpets throughout in similar tones.
The sitting room furnishings were loaned entirely from Carney’s decorating business Artistry Pty Ltd. It included two Louis XV walnut settees, Louis XV dining chairs, a dining table inlaid with Sevres plaques, gilt mirrors, and a display cabinet containing a collection of 22 antique porcelain figures.
In the Queen’s bedroom, soft furnishings included, and I quote: “….cameo beige chintz curtains with grey scrolls and leaves relieved with violets in natural colour; pelmets in matching satin with hand-appliquéd motifs cut from the chintz; floor-length palest rose ninon voiles screen blinds in matching colour.” the sofa chairs and settee were upholstered in old rose and French grey brocatelle, with seating inserts of foam rubber to minimise, according to a newspaper reporter of the time, crushing the Queen’s frocks and gowns.
Carney also commissioned an entire suite of furniture from the Sydney company Edward Hill & Co. comprising two bedside tables, a dressing table with winged mirror, dressing table stool, a commode, a high-boy, cheval mirror, a four-panel screen, and occasional tables.
The firm’s in-house designer, Will Swaffield, was responsible for the designs, and its team of expert cabinet makers, veneer cutters, polishers, and upholsterers for making them. Crafted from Queensland butt maple, all were cedar-lined and veneered in burr walnut, and in Louis Revival style, with “serpentine shaped fronts on the cabinet pieces, delicate but restrained carved decorations of acanthus scrolls and flower sprays, and cabriole legs terminating in scroll toes.”
Some of this furniture survives in the Collection Store; but, as part of a bedroom suite, it is obviously not on display in the State Rooms, or otherwise used in the House.
The French revivalism throughout the Royal Apartments mirrored elements of the House’s State Rooms, particularly the suites of rococo revival furnishings acquired the century before under Governors Sir Charles Fitzroy, Sir William Dennison, and Sir John Young. It also continued the Government House tradition of utilizing not only the best of local materials, but also the expertise of the best local craftsmen.
Hence, in completing their commission, Will Swaffield and Hill & Co’s workshop joined a select cohort of prominent Sydney furniture designers who had received Vice Regal patronage and whose work is still in use at Government House today; including, for instance, Andrew Lenehan, whose dining table and chairs grace the Dining Room, and Alexander Norton and William Verdich, whose late nineteenth-century pieces are in the Drawing Room and Main Hall.
Notwithstanding the extraordinary attention to detail I have just mentioned, what was the creation of The Royal Apartment for Her Majesty and the Royal Household was purposed to “provide a home, offering every comfort and convenience, but with complete absence of ostentation”.
This was in contrast to the decorative schemes deployed by Lyon and Cottier’s refurbishments of the State Rooms in 1879 that, as exemplary presentations of the Aesthetic movement, were deliberate and emphatic expressions of contemporary international design.
Did the refurbishment of the Royal Suite hit the mark? Décor is, of course, very much a matter of personal taste. Governor Northcott’s daughter, Elizabeth Nash, recalls, that although advised that the Queen rarely commented on such things, her Majesty remarked upon entering ‘her’ bedroom, “What a wonderful room”.
The sailing of the Royal Yacht Gothic into Sydney Harbour, bearing an estimated 8 tons of Royal household baggage, on the 3rd February 1954 was, of course, an historic occasion, the beginning of the first, and to date only, visit by a reigning British monarch to Australia. The arrival of the Queen – 27-years old and having acceded to the throne less two years prior – practically stopped the nation.
An estimated crowd of a million people looked on, the warmth of their welcome presaging the deep and abiding affection the people of Australia would hold for her throughout her reign. The reciprocity of service that her Majesty sought in her 21st birthday speech has been honoured, by the many organisations here in Australia who have been entitled with the prefix ‘Royal’, and the service of defence men and women, police officers, judicial officers, and so many others who in their service to community swear allegiance to the Monarch.
It was unsurprising, therefore, to witness the profound grief, the deep sense of loss felt by so many at the passing of Her Late Majesty. Until then, approximately 9 out of 10 Australians had known no other monarch. From speaking with people who came to Government House to sign the condolence book and to leave flowers, and with so many around the State, there went with that grief a sense of wonderment at her unfailing service and a deep sense of gratitude.
In the words of Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, Cabinet Minister from 1990 until 1997, and since 1999 a life peer in the House of Lords, noting her role to remain above politics; or, as he put it: “…separate from the necessary power struggles beneath. [She was] the very exemplar of service. [And she did that] as a real, living, breathing, person. That is what she accepted all those years ago and having accepted the burden, she carried it all her long life without missing a beat.”
Tonight, I honour her memory.
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 June 1893, page 1273
Southern Cross, Friday 30 June 1893, page 4
 Martha Rutledge, ‘Sir Robert William Duff’, in David Clune and Ken Turner (eds), The Governors of New South Wales: 1788-2010, Federation Press, Sydney, 2009, p. 363
 ibid. pp. 362-3
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 June 1893, page 1273
 Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 212
 Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 209.
 Ann Toy, ‘“What a lovely room”: Edward Hill & Co. and the Royal Apartment, Government House Sydney’; Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 212; Ann Toy and Robert Griffin, Government House Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 2011, p. 95
 Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 213; Ann Toy, ‘“What a lovely room”: Edward Hill & Co. and the Royal Apartment, Government House Sydney’
 Clive Carney, International Interiors and Design, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1959, pp. 54-55, quoted in Ann Toy, ‘“What a lovely room”: Edward Hill & Co. and the Royal Apartment, Government House Sydney’
 Unattributed news-clipping, Northcott papers, cited in Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 212
 Ann Toy, ‘“What a lovely room”: Edward Hill & Co. and the Royal Apartment, Government House Sydney’.
 Ann Toy, ‘“What a lovely room”: Edward Hill & Co. and the Royal Apartment, Government House Sydney’; Ann Toy and Robert Griffin, Government House Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 2011, pp. 76-77.
 Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 212.
 Elizabeth Nash (née Northcott), cited in Rosemary Broomhall, ‘The Royal Suite’, in Barry MacGregor, Government House Sydney: Conservation and Management Plan: Vol. 1, p. 213