Exploring Melbourne: Villa Alba

Villa Alba, Kew, Melbourne, Australia

Villa Alba, Kew, Melbourne, Australia

My Melbourne friend Gabe and I share an enjoyment of Victorian architecture and photography.  For Gabe, of course, as a Melbourne resident, the adjective “Victorian” has both a historical and a geographical sense.  So Gabe and I spent an afternoon looking at Victorian Victorian architecture.

Without him I wouldn’t have found Villa Alba in the suburb of Kew, the home of William Greenlaw, a Scottish farmer’s son who rose to be general manager of the Colonial Bank of Australasia and in 1883-4 kitted out his wife Anna Maria in opulent splendour overlooking the Yarra River.

He may have designed the structure himself, but he employed the brothers Charles Stewart Paterson (1843-1917) and James Paterson (1853-1929), also Scots, to provide elaborate painted and stencilled colour schemes throughout the house.  Each room had its own theme, with much use of trompe l’oeil including outdoor scenes of Edinburgh and Sydney, Mr & Mrs Greenlaw’s respective birthplaces, scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels and, in the boudoir, a tented ceiling.

The furniture by W H Rocke & Co has largely disappeared, and one satinwood cabinet is in the National Gallery of Victoria.  A satinwood overmantel, illustrating scenes from Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been returned to the house.

When William Greenlaw met the fate of over-confident bankers and was made insolvent in the early 1890s, his home was safely in his wife’s name.  Two years after his death in 1893, she sold up and let the place, and in due course it became a nurse’s home and then a college.  At some point in the 1950s, much of the Pattersons’ decoration was overpainted to “brighten the place up”.

The Villa Alba Museum Inc bought the house and garden in 2004, and is now slowly and surely recovering the lost decorative schemes.  It’s fascinating to see the place in transition, and in time to come it’ll look as glorious as it did in 1884.

For details of the restoration see http://www.villaalbamuseum.org.  A more detailed historical description, which first appeared in Antiques & Collectables for Pleasure & Profit (Spring 2011), is at http://www.acpp.com.au/article03_antiques-collectables.php.  The house is illustrated in glorious detail in Russell Winnell’s photostream:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/65998556@N03.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *