Elizabeth Wright on Old Government House

The July guest speaker was Elizabeth Wright who is responsible for the refurbishment of Old Government House, Parramatta.

Elizabeth started by telling us that some years ago she purchased Aberglasslyn, a large and inspiring Georgian House in the Hunter Valley. She quickly realised that, if possible, the house should be refurnished and decorated in its’ original style. This involved hanging sheets of material at the windows and tying them back with ropes and tassels to study the effect. The work on Aberglasslyn led to a continuing interest in the furnishings of period houses.

Dr James Broadbent of the Historic Houses Trust has set up a resource centre of rare books showing details of the types of furniture and furnishings used in the last few hundred years and these have been an invaluable help to Elizabeth.
The National Trust last year accepted a report made by Dr Broadbent & Elizabeth on the refurnishing of Old Government House and work is now under way on the private wing — the breakfast room, principal bedroom and dressing room (see article by Gwen Hanna in The Journal).
There was very little information available to help in this project which made the reconstruction of the furnishings more difficult. The detailed, delicate and precise work of identifying and developing traditional designs for the curtains, embroideries and other decorative features was given to Elizabeth who is now the leading Australian specialist in 19th century soft furnishings (from National Trust magazine Reflection May-July 2004).
Elizabeth has concentrated on curtains and bed hangings over the years with many excellent slides to illustrate her information.
Starting in Elizabethan times, curtains and bed hangings (for warmth) were hung straight and then cord was used to tie them back or keep them apart.
By the 18th century the windows of grand houses were more elaborately shaped so the straight length of material was festooned or draped to suit the shape of the top of the window and the width of the fabric. Again, ties were used to keep this shaping.
Elizabeth spoke about measurement of cloth which was in ells One ell measured 1¼ yards or 5 quarters (5 x 9″). Fabric was usually woven half an ell in width ie 22½”. Relating to this, a finger was half a quarter ie 4½” and this was used as the width or depth of the fringe. Half a finger, 2¼” was called a nail and was often used to place a decorative line in from the edge of the curtain.
As well as the slides, Elizabeth brought with her a considerable collection of old books and some of the type of fabrics which could have been used in those days.
This was a most interesting talk and we hope that Elizabeth will be able to return to the Guild to give us more insights into the furnishings that were in vogue at the time that Government House was occupied by Governor and Mrs Macquarie in 1821.
A lot more work needs to be done to restore the House to it’s former style. At the moment, it is only the breakfast room that has been furnished due to the work done by Elizabeth and a band of willing and talented volunteers (see articles in Reflections Nov-Jan, Feb-April and May-July, 2004, also article by Gwen Hanna in Guild Journal 2004).

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