UA1-WA:P2-p4 Visit a town house

Elizabeth Bay House, built between 1835 and 1839 for Alexander Macleay and his family, was intended to be ‘the finest house in the colony’. Macleay arrived in Sydney in 1826 as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, after the Governor the most important official position in the colony. Well educated and a highly experienced civil servant, Macleay took up the position from financial necessity. He was granted over 20 hectares of land at Elizabeth Bay, three kilometres from the city centre. Macleay had a broad range of interests including entomology (his collection of specimens was reputed to be the largest in private hands) and horticulture, which were strongly reflected in his house and garden. Architect John Verge oversaw construction, but the original source of the design is not known.

elizabeth_bay_01The money ran out before the exterior of the house was finished and the intended colonnade was not built. The portico was added in 1893. After many changes of ownership and uses the house was restored by the State and opened as a museum in 1977. The interiors have been decorated and furnished to reflect their use by the Macleay family between 1839 and 1845. The extensive grounds were subdivided and sold over the years and are now mainly covered by apartment blocks of various ages. However the Council purchased the area immediately in front of the building, preserving some of the views to the harbour and maintaining some of the context of the House. Unfortunately my visit was on a very wet day and I was not able to explore the remnants of the gardens.

elizabeth_bay_02The house was located high on the hillside, making the most of the view down the harbour. This photograph shows the outlook from the window of Alexander Macleay’s bedroom in the top right corner of the building (viewed from the street). The house is carefully oriented to the east and on the winter solstice the first light through the heads of the harbour pierces the house from front door to back.

elizabeth_bay_floorThe rooms at the front of the house were bright even on a dull day. On the ground floor there are wooden internal shutters in addition to the external shutters. On the upper level the canvas blinds seem hardly adequate to the task of protection from the sun. The domed saloon with lantern windows in the centre of the house (marked “4” on the plan) brings light into the interior. All the photographs in this report were taken (with permission) without flash.

elizabeth_bay_03The elliptical saloon is a remarkable space, connecting all the public rooms and the main levels of the house. It displays wealth and refinement. elizabeth_bay_04The cantilevered staircase of Marulan mudstone leads the eye up and elizabeth_bay_07 constantly surprises with complex forms as you move through the house. The geometry is firmly reinforced with a radiating pattern in the mudstone floor, strict symmetry in the placement of doors, including a partial false door under the stairs, and reflected in the curved cedar door to the oval breakfast room (“5” on the plan).
elizabeth_bay_08elizabeth_bay_09There is limited furniture and artwork in the saloon. The architecture is the star. However lighting is provided by two bronzed plaster figures representing Vesta, designed by architect Thomas Hopper. The choice of a mythological subject again displays the refinement and education of the owner.

However the interests and personality of Alexander Macleay is most strongly seen in the library (room “6”), the largest room in the colony when built and intended to house his book and natural history collections.
elizabeth_bay_11This is the comfortable room of a cultivated, wealthy, man of learning. Alexander Macleay was a member of the Linnean Society. Portraits hung on the walls include Macleay himself and prominent men of science and exploration such as Cook, Banks and Linnaeus. A number of the rooms are roped off. I was very fortunate that, having asked about the selection of artwork, I was given a personal guided tour through the building including some normally restricted areas. The large desk to the right of the photograph above is a “specimen desk” which the guide opened to show the many drawers used for insect specimens.

elizabeth_bay_10The broken pediment cabinet on the left in this photograph beautifully illustrates the combination of wealth, taste and learning being displayed by Macleay. Behind the glass doors are drawers containing part of his entomological collection. The cabinet itself is finely made and each drawer front is veneered with a different species of wood.

elizabeth_bay_12This marble bust by Achille Simonetti of Sir William John Macleay, nephew of Alexander, shows him as a Greek philosopher – a man of science and learning. Another bust in the room is of William Sharp Macleay, son of Alexander. All three men lived in Elizabeth House and pursued their scientific interests there.

elizabeth_bay_14Next to the library at the front of the house is the drawing room (“2” on the plan). This is a light and feminine space, used particularly by the ladies of the house and their guests after dinner. Rather than “serious” paintings of mythological subjects or historical figures, here we see still lifes and gentle narratives in watercolours and acquatints.

elizabeth_bay_15This room also demonstrates the wealth and good taste of its owners. The light ground of the Brussels weave carpet would be expensive to maintain, the white marble chimneypiece was imported from London. The light fixture seen in the photograph is obviously modern, but one can also see the pier glass with its gilt frame over the mantlepiece and the lustre lamps, all intended to reflect light around the room.

elizabeth_bay_13Some of the Macleay daughters were quite accomplished painters. On the left is a still life watercolour by Frances ‘Fanny’ Macleay, which was exhibited by her as an honorary exhibitor at the Royal Academy London in 1824. Hung in the home such works would demonstrate the girls’ accomplishment, refinement and education. A reproduction of this work hangs in the drawing room today.

elizabeth_bay_16The dining room (“3” on the plan) while a shared space is more masculine given the gentlemen would have remained there after dinner to discuss politics, science etc. The mantlepiece is black french slate. The curators have chosen a Napoleonic theme with etchings of Nelson, Wellington, Pitt the younger and Napoleon. There are also etchings of the young Victoria and Albert, as well as a coronation scene above the mantlepiece. There is documentation that Macleay owned portraits of Louis XIV and King Charles I, possibly displayed to suggest his conservative politics and monarchist sentiments.

elizabeth_bay_17The breakfast room (“5” on the plan) is unusual in being quite oval, including the curved door leading to the saloon. It is also dark, a result of the wallpaper (based on fragments found during restoration) and the southerly orientation. This would be more private than the other rooms on the ground floor, and again a more feminine space. The painting above the mantlepiece is a copy by one of the Macleay daughters of a Penitent Magdalene. It is perhaps advanced for a young lady of the time, being in oil paint, but there is awkwardness particularly around the neck. The other artwork in the room consists of etchings and acquatints, mainly either young wistful women or interior views of families at their morning and evening devotions and other tales of morality.

elizabeth_bay_18Upstairs there were six bedrooms for family members. There were some small bedrooms for servants in the attic and at the rear of the building, but most were accommodated in the separate two-story kitchen wing, since demolished. The room shown here has been furnished as the room of Kennethina Macleay, the only unmarried daughter of the family. The prints here are similar to those in the breakfast room downstairs, illustrating young women, morality tales, and a gentle landscape.

elizabeth_bay_19More prints have been hung in the curved hall outside the bedrooms, such as Watt’s etching of Landseer’s The Highland Drover’s Departing for the South. Above Kennethina’s door it seemed to be a sweet family in an interior. The selection above Alexander and Eliza’s room was a more active scene (Eliza bore 17 children in all, of whom 10 survived infancy).

elizabeth_bay_20Also on the first floor is the morning room, generally seen as a private sitting room particularly for the women of the family. It has the same mix of gentle prints (the top one here appears to be a monkey playing with kittens) and bric-a-brac. It is also furnished with musical instruments, reading and sewing tables, writing desk and a telescope trained down the harbour. Interestingly the guide explained that this was thought to be a semi-pubic room based on general standard of finish and the height of the wainscot (what I would call skirting board). This was highest in public rooms, less in family bedrooms and smallest of all in the maid’s bedroom. Presumably if other Sydney ladies paid a call they may have joined the family here.

elizabeth_bay_21This photograph of a door in the drawing room gives a better idea of the paneling and of the flared Greek doric column detailing of the doorways. This is consistent with the overall Greek revival architecture of the house. This was already rather old-fashioned at the time the house was built, but Alexander Macleay was in his mid-sixties and presumably chose what was familiar and comfortable to him.

elizabeth_bay_22This final view is from the square entry hall, showing the original marbled paint finish surrounding the door with plaster finish, and overall paint colour based on wall scrapings, looking into the drawing room with its expensive and tasteful furnishings and artwork. This was a house built and furnished to impress visitors, a showpiece. It was also a home built to accommodate a large family and their myriad interests.

More information about the house can be found at and the garden at

UA1-WA:P2-p4 Visit a town house
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Topic: Visit a town house

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November 2013

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