Exploring Australia 11: Rippon Lea Mansion

Rippon Lea Mansion, Melbourne, Australia:  fernery

Rippon Lea Mansion, Melbourne, Australia: fernery

Because I was in Melbourne on my own, I chose to avoid the obvious tourist sites that I might visit with other people, and sought out the quirky places where I wouldn’t dream of taking folk who don’t share my interests.

I spent half an hour photographing the late nineteenth-century housing around Albert Park, with characteristic filigree cast-iron lace verandas manufactured, so I’m told, from the ballast and scrap of ships that ended their days in Melbourne harbour.

I spent an hour in the Melbourne General Cemetery, a hot and unshady place, where the Necropolis Company has clearly done a roaring trade in narrowing the paths, so that ranks of ostentatious Italian black-marble family tombs stand in front of older, more English monuments, and there is, near the modern funeral chapel, an astonishing grotto in memory of Elvis Presley, inaugurated barely three months after the singer’s death in August 1977.

Most enjoyable of all, and prompted by Gabriel, the Victorian aficionado I met on The Ghan, I visited a Victorian Victorian mansion, Rippon Lea, in the southern suburbs [http://www.ripponleaestate.com.au].  (It’s disconcerting to English ears that in this part of the world Victorian means located in the state of Victoria.)  If I’d remembered to take my UK National Trust card I could have saved A$12 [about £7.50], but I could hardly begrudge such a delightful Australian National Trust experience, complete with a pot of properly-made tea at the end of the afternoon.

Rippon Lea was the creation of a Melbourne clothing and drapery merchant, Frederick Thomas Sargood, inspired by his English parents’ retirement villa in Croydon, South London.  Designed by the Melbourne architect Joseph Reed, who favoured polychrome brickwork, Rippon Lea was begun in 1868 and repeatedly extended as Sargood’s family grew.  In style it veers between French and Italian, and is graced with ironwork verandas, including a particularly fine porte-cochère.

The glory of the place is the garden, landscaped, irrigated and drained from unpromising sandy wasteland, with sewage disposal integrated into the provision of fertiliser:  the Australian National Trust aim to restore it to full water-supply self-sufficiency.  The most beguiling feature is the gigantic iron-framed fernery, built to protect and conserve specimens gathered world-wide.

After Sargood’s death in 1903, the property was bought by the appropriately named Sir Thomas Bent, described by another Prime Minster of Victoria as “the most brazen, untrustworthy intriguer” ever to sit in the Victorian Parliament.  Bent proceeded to parcel up the Rippon Lea estate for housing development, and used the house only as a venue for political gatherings.

Bent died in 1910, before his syndicate could sell off the entire property, and Rippon Lea was then bought and lived in by a furniture dealer, Benjamin Nathan.  When his daughter Louisa inherited in 1935, she chose to cheer the place up, overpainting the gold-embossed wallpaper and marble columns and fireplaces, adding mirrors to gain light and demolishing Sargood’s iron-framed ballroom.  She created a new ballroom which opens on to a Hollywood-style swimming pool and terrace in 1938-9.  After a considerable controversy over an intended government-backed compulsory purchase, it became a National Trust property on Louisa’s death in 1972.

As displayed, the house is a palimpsest, based on English models, adapted to the sunny Melbourne climate, designed and built to the highest standards of its day, and then forcefully modernised for a 1930s lifestyle.  Pam, our guide, discussed at length how much is still being discovered about the house and its contents.  Australian history is, as the taxi-driver told me on the way to Alice Springs airport, short but “busy”.


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