Saturday, May 07, 2016

A Time Capsule in Hampton Road - The Markree* House Museum, Hobart




What lies behind the gate and those two hundred year -old walls?

Easily overlooked among Hobart’s wealth of colonial buildings is the modest Markree House Museum.  I must have walked past its unprepossessing exterior hundreds of times without giving it a second glance, yet it is important for several reasons.

Not imposing perhaps, but important for other reasons
 Firstly, it marks the transition from the grand colonial mansion to the single family home which could be managed without live –in servants. Secondly, it reflects the life of an emerging affluent middle class of merchants and professionals, rather than the one consisting primarily of soldiers, landed gentry, convicts, servants and tradesmen, which preceded it. Thirdly, it embodies the principles of the Arts and Craft Movement which became popular in Europe and America in the mid C19th. This was both a revolt against the excesses of the Victorian Age and the shoddiness and soullessness of mass production.  Lastly, despite the European origin of these ideas, and in contrast to earlier generations which looked nostalgically back to Mother England for inspiration, this house reflects its place in the world both in its design and in its use of materials and decoration. 

Scent, romance and naturalistic planting are the hallmarks of an Arts and Craft style garden
While there are no doubt other houses from this era tucked away in Hobart, this one is remarkable in that with the exception of some minor modifications to the bathroom and kitchen, it has been in the same family and retained many of the artefacts which it had when it  was built  for  Ruth and Cecil Baldwin in 1926. We thus not only glimpse what family life was like at the time, but something of the personality of its owners.  The Baldwins were third generation Australians from a well -to -do family which strongly supported the abolition of transportation. The identical house built next door was occupied by Ruth’s two unmarried sisters. The garden, laid out by Cecil who trained at the Burnley Horticultural College where Australian icon Edna Walling also trained,  incorporates the design concepts of the Art and Craft Movement. These emphasised the integration of house and garden and naturalistic plantings with simple rock borders, and garden “rooms” rather than formal beds, and rigid geometric structures.

Hallway - simple, almost shaker style furnishings and finishes, but of high quality and using local timber
 The Arts and Craft Movement inspired by the writings of John Ruskin on art and architecture and applied by William Morris and his contemporaries, stressed not only a return to the fine craftsmanship which predated the industrial revolution, but also sought to ennoble the worker “by creating things of beauty which would bring pleasure to both the maker and the user. “ While not all of these aims were realised – Morris himself eventually had to resort to machine production to keep up with demand,   the movement spread like wildfire across Europe and the Atlantic. Even Tasmania had its own Art and Craft Society which began in 1903 and exhibited regularly until after World War I, when it was overtaken by other styles such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Ergonomic Staircase in Tasmanian Oak
 It is not known whether the Baldwins were members of the Society, but the Markree House, designed by architect Bernard Ridley Walker reflects its design principles in its avoidance of unnecessary ornamentation, honest local materials – mostly Tasmanian Oak, superbly but subtly worked, and in its preference for form following function.
Unlike many earlier homes whose plans came directly from England, Markree’s living rooms face north and have the kitchen in the cooler part of the house. The pantry can be accessed directly from the street via a separate door and the house has an attached garage, which would have been quite novel in 1926. Practicality is also front and centre in the layout of the lounge, kitchen and dining rooms. A servery connects the dining room almost directly to the kitchen sink, while the cutlery and the Spode china are in cupboards above and drawers below, both of which can be opened from either side. Both the size of the lounge and the large stove and double sink suggest that the Baldwins enjoyed entertaining. The recipe books are well thumbed.

Practicalities -Guide, Phillipa demonstrates how the servery worked between the dining room and the kitchen
A peek in the kitchen cupboard
 While Cecil worked with his brother as a landscape gardener, Ruth practised various crafts, especially woodwork. Her drop -leaf writing desk is particularly interesting because it features the Tasmanian blue gum, an Australian floral emblem, rather than a slavishly copied European one. Appreciation of Australian flora and the sense of an Australian identity were only starting to emerge at the time of Federation in 1901. Ruth also ‘repurposed’ long before it was fashionable. There are two charming cats made from a pair black stockingss among the toys and in the kitchen, there’s an apron made from a hessian sack but with a stylish cut and a trim of well -loved floral fabric.

The secretaire and mirror were made by Ruth Balwin ca. 1905

Blue gum motif on the desk reflects surging national pride in the wake of Federation and growing appreciation of native flora
Meanwhile, young Henry, their only child, contented himself with his Hornsby trainset, Meccano and tin toys, which are all intact and complete with their boxes. Collectors will drool.I suspect they may have played a role in his later career choices as a boat builder in Hobart and Williamstown, and later as railway engineer in Launceston. He returned to the house in the 1960’s and lived there until his death in 2007.  In his will he bequeathed both Markree House and the neighbouring house to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which now runs tours by appointment.

Henry's bedroom - straight out of Boy's Own

The toys reflect  "a time of innovations in transport and other technologies"

However, the handmade toys created by his mother and aunts were also favourites

You do need to book 24 hours ahead by phoning the Museum (03) 62114177. Cost is $10 for adults, $8.00 Concession, $4 per child and there is a special price $16 for both when you book Narranya at the same time. Narrranya at Battery Point houses a fine colonial collection.

* The house is named after Markree Castle, County Sligo, Ireland, where Cecil's mother was born and where her father was a private astronomer

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