Exploring Sydney: Elizabeth Bay House

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, Australia:  Saloon

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, Australia: Saloon

The inlet to the west of Darling Point, where Campbell Drummon Riddell built Lindesay House, is Elizabeth Bay.

Here another Scot, Alexander Macleay (1767-1848), obtained a grant of 54 acres of land from Governor Darling in order to lay out an extensive and magnificent garden in 1826.

He eventually began Elizabeth Bay House in 1835, employing the architect John Verge (1782-1861) to design a grand Palladian villa, very unlike the Gothic gloom of Lindesay House.

Macleay was financially incompetent, preoccupied with his interest in entomology.  Indeed, his appointment as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales was dictated by the need to bring his finances under control.

The strategy failed:  he lost his government post in 1837 (though he was later appointed Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843), and the house was only rendered habitable when his more astute son, William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), retired to Sydney in 1839.

Even so, a severe economic downturn in the colony obliged the Macleays to begin subdividing the estate in 1841, and by 1844 Alexander Macleay’s bills were being directed to his son’s account.  Furniture from Elizabeth Bay House was sold to furnish Government House in central Sydney when it was completed in 1845.

In fact, the elegant exterior of Elizabeth Bay House is unfinished.  John Verge intended a single-storey colonnade to extend around three sides of the building.  The existing portico was added in 1893 because Lady Macleay, the mother of a later owner, James William Macarthur Onslow, feared for the safety of her guests in the morning room, where French windows opened on to a sheer drop where the planned colonnade would have stood.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bay House is by all accounts one of the most impressive of Australian nineteenth-century domestic interiors.  Its crowning glory is the oval saloon with its cantilevered staircase, possibly based on Henry Holland’s Carlton House Terrace in London (1811) and reminiscent of James Paine’s Stockeld Park, Yorkshire, of 1757-63.

Alexander Macleay’s estate was repeatedly subdivided for housing development, until only three acres remained in 1882.  Eventually, the house itself was bought by a development company in 1926, and the year after the remaining three acres was itself divided into sixteen lots, only five of which found buyers.

The house was divided into flats in the early 1940s, and remained in multiple use until it became a museum in 1977.  It is now administered by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, restored as far as possible to its condition when the Macleays first moved in.

Here too, as at Lindesay House, you can stand at the front door and gaze across Sydney Harbour, ignoring the modern development all around and imagining the stupendous beauty of the place when Sydney itself was barely fifty years old.

The guidebook to Elizabeth Bay House is at http://www.hht.net.au/discover/highlights/guidebooks/elizabeth_bay_house_guidebook.


Leave a Reply

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