Essay - Solid joys and lasting treasure
Do you remember the garden in which you grew up or the part the backyard played in your family life? Imagine if you had grown up in one of Australia's finest gardens. Created in the English-landscape tradition which traces its roots back to Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, Rippon Lea is one of Australia's most important historic homes, exemplifying the lifestyle of wealthy families living in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australian cities. Although the architecture of the mansion and outbuildings is impressive, it is the gardens which are truly remarkable, both for their landscape qualities and because they have survived many threats and changes in the past 130 years.
The Sargood family created the original Rippon Lea gardens and enjoyed their early years there in much the same manner as any young family making their first home. Today the amenities offered by a garden are still greatly valued: a safe place for children to play; somewhere to dry the washing; a plot for vegetables; and a flower garden to add colour and blooms for the home. For people of means, it may also be a place to entertain where picnics can be enjoyed in a shady spot, with even a tennis court or swimming pool alongside. The wealth of the Sargoods enabled them to enjoy all the benefits a garden could provide, as well as the services of seven gardeners and other servants to maintain their large property. Today as then, the scale differs but the experience of owning a garden with its balance of utility and ornament - is essentially the same.
Birth of a garden
Frederick Sargood created Rippon Lea, naming it after his mother, Emma Rippon. He came from England to the colony of Victoria with his parents and five sisters as a sixteen year old in 1850. His father was a draper, and seized the opportunity provided by the gold rush to set up his soft goods business in Flinders Street. Young Frederick soon joined the firm, and in 1858 assumed responsibility for the Sargood business. His father was able to retire, returning to England with his wife to the comforts of the home counties. The same year Frederick married Marian Australia Rolfe, and they rented a house in Alma Road, St Kilda.
A decade later, Frederick was able to begin what was to become a life-long project with the purchase of over twenty acres of bushland beyond the outskirts of Melbourne. This was the initial step towards creating his vision of a garden estate at Elsternwick.
When the family took up residence in 1869, the first garden was already laid out in the European manner. The house they built even contained a pavilion room on the south-west corner overlooking the croquet lawn and orangery. This was a kind of indoor-outdoor room where informal meals could be taken, and the family and guests might gather to enjoy conversation amid the pleasures of the garden and its cool breezes. Both the pavilion and the house had an Italianate feel.
Childhood's pleasure ground
In her memoirs, the Sargood's eldest daughter, Clara, tells of the fun she had with her three brothers, Freddie, Norman and Percy, in the first garden at Rippon Lea in the 1870s:
From bare paddock and surroundings under the guiding mind of Father, the garden began to grow, trees were planted, lawns laid down and soon there was a croquet lawn, on which we children fought many a game of croquet; if we could get no companion it was immaterial, one person could play in tum with all the balls, taking sides quite impartially.
The children were educated at home by an Irish governess, Mrs Ferguson, but every free moment was spent on activities in the garden - bird nesting, fishing and endless games. Clara tells us of how in the summer the Sargood children were encouraged to occupy themselves:
We had our rabbits, pigeons and gardens, from the gardens we sold our poor little vegetables to Mother who always gave us praise for our labours.
Marian Sargood bore nine children. Sadly, she died in childbirth on her fortieth birthday in 1879. Clara remembers her father returning from the funeral and calling her into the garden . They sat under a tree while he told her how much he depended on her to help him and to show the others a good example. Frederick was deeply grieved by his wife's death. He resigned all his public offices, put his business affairs in order and decided to take all the children on an extended visit to England.
A new garden of Eden at Elsternwick
In England, Frederick married his second cousin, Julia Tomlin; his tenth child, Charlotte, was born as the family returned to Australia in 1882. As well as this precious cargo, Frederick also brought back a new head gardener for Rippon Lea - a gentle Scotsman, Adam Anderson, with his family. An extensive collection of exotic orchids had also been assembled in London and was shipped to Melbourne. The collection was reported by the Leader newspaper (1883) to be the largest in the colonies.
Frederick seemed freshly inspired by all he had seen and experienced in Europe, and set about making many improvements to the family home. The garden was transformed from its earlier gardenesque style to the picturesque naturalism of William Sangster's landscaping. As Melbourne's top landscape gardener, Sangster had been engaged by Sargood to extend the lake and supervise the new scheme. Sangster was to the private garden what William Guilfoyle, director of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens, was to botanic gardens of the period .
Clara Sargood was twenty-five when she married Henry Webster in the ballroom at Rippon Lea in 1889.The children were becoming adults and, as they were maturing, the estate made the transition from family garden to grand formal landscape. Entertaining included 'at homes' and balls held regularly, and on some occasions as many as 500 guests attended. There were outdoor performances of Shakespeare and opera. Perhaps the greatest spectacle in Rippon Lea's history was the Pageant of Empire held in the garden in 1901 to celebrate the federation of the Australian colonies. The visiting royals were the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, who later became George V and Queen Mary.
Sargood saw the creation of the garden at Rippon Lea as one of the major achievements of his life. According to his son, Harry Morton Sargood, his father was closely involved in the life of the garden, and for years the household could set their clocks by his morning programme. It began by his leaving his room at a certain time and going into the garden with notebook in hand to prepare for the head gardener after breakfast. Then he would be out again , and the two would discuss new work. Later in the afternoon, if he was free, he would be out yet again, with a companion if available. The creation of Rippon Lea was his life's hobby.
Bythe time of Frederick Sargood's death in 1903, Rippon Lea had been a happy family home and had become the grand landscaped estate of a successful businessman, politician and public figure. The garden had figured centrally in the family's life and become famous in its own right
Twice saviours of the garden
Benjamin Nathan purchased Rippon Lea in 1910 and it was his daughter, Louisa, who was the last private owner until her death in 1972. She was 17 when she first lived there, and she would have watched the garden undergo the changes her father introduced. Head gardeners James Dearing and later Stanley Orchard, an orchid specialist, oversaw major replanting, including the introduction of a large number of native trees and shrubs. The Australasian reported in 1916 that over 60 kinds of acacia had been planted, perhaps reflecting the patriotic fervour of the times. The First World War was in full swing, and Wattle Days at Rippon Lea were used to raise much-needed funds for returned servicemen.
Nathan had made his wealth from the Maples chain of furniture stores. In contrast to Sargood, he was a private man and, although he was generous in the public use o the grounds, his real interest lay in plant collecting. He built over twenty heated glasshouses to contain his extensive orchid and tropical flower collections. Immediately opposite the main entrance of the mansion, Nathan boldly erected the largest conservatory yet constructed in the state of Victoria.
The public could visit this 'Crystal Palace' and other parts of the garden in return for donating a silver coin, with all proceeds going to the Red Cross. Agnes Nathan, Louisa's mother, supported a number of charities, and used the gardens for fundraising events such as tea parties and patriotic fetes. It was at the fetes that theatrical performances were given of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and All's Well That Ends Well by the Elwood Players. Doubtless the Nathans were aware of the benefits these efforts might give their social standing when Melbourne society read about the family's philanthropy in the pages of Table Talk.
Keeping up with the Joneses
On the death of her father in 1935, Louisa inherited the garden estate. Along with her lawyer husband Timothy Jones and their four children, in 1938 they set about modernising the home and adapting the garden to the lifestyle the family desired. The greatest changes were a new ballroom and an in-ground swimming pool- not the first in Melbourne, but certainly the most stylish, influenced by the Hollywood glamour which prevailed over popular taste in Australia.
Boating, balls, garden parties and promenading were all part of the garden's history. The introduction of the swimming pool and the provision of a tennis court enhanced the concept of a pleasure garden. They also reflected the change in social attitudes, with swimming and tennis replacing the more formal social sports of archery and croquet. Victorian propriety in dress and etiquette gave way to the casualness expressed by the two-piece swimsuit for women and tennis shorts for men.
Rippon Lea's fashionable conversion into a modern family home was featured in the April 1940 edition of Home magazine. However, Australia had already joined the Allies in World War two. and life would never be the same again. The Jones family organised two forms of defence against the danger of Japanese attack: an air raid shelter was constructed in the orchard according to designs suggested by the Department of Defence, and a rural property was purchased at Kyneton to provide for evacuation should the city be bombed. The staff at Rippon Lea was also heavily reduced.
In the 1950s the conservatories and glass houses were slowly dismantled, the huge circular vegetable garden was subdivided for suburban housing, and the southern entrance was sold to set up the first television studios for the ABC to broadcast the Olympic Games in 1956. Louisa threw many a good party around the pool and ballroom, including functions for visiting Olympic teams. Rippon Lea's reputation for warmth and generous hospitality continued.
The fight continues
Rippon Lea occupies a special position in Australian conservation history as a property saved specifically for its historic gardens. Single-handedly, Louisa Jones fought the full might of the Commonwealth government, after it had compulsorily purchased 4.1 acres to extend the broadcasting facilities of the ABC in the 1960s. Having lost two court cases, she combined her efforts with the National Trust to successfully save the property for the people of Victoria. She received this news shortly before she died in 1972,aged seventy-eight. As Henry Bolte, Victorian premier of the time remarked, 'Few people have worked so hard to give so much away'.
The Trust now runs Rippon Lea as a museum, conserving the architecture and the landscape, and presenting the social history of the owners and their servants. Visitors to Rippon Lea enter a mansion preserved as the Jones family lived in it after the 1938 modernisation. In the pleasure garden the Sargood era is evoked by staging a range of performing arts events including opera, theatre, chamber music and outdoor activities. More than their wealth, success or high office, the families who owned Rippon Lea valued their garden for the solid joys it gave them. Ownership by the National Trust has provided today's families with access which no longer depends on wealth or privilege. The historic garden home of the Sargood, Nathan and Jones families is the common wealth of all Australians and a memorial to their efforts. Rippon Lea is a lasting treasure for us all to enjoy.