Conisboro, Banool and Blythswood.

After David Syme’s death in 1908 Geoffrey managed to remove himself from Conisboro and bought a house, Banool, in Studley Park Road, Kew. It is not quite certain if he managed to do this without hurting his mother’s feelings. He only had two children, Marjorie aged six and Hilaire aged four, so he could not pretend that he needed a bigger house. However Banool was not very far away, about seven or eight blocks from Blythswood, near the Kew Junction, but up the hill and definitely far enough to deter her unexpected visits. It had about four acres of land - not nearly as much as Blythswood - it was near the corner of two busy roads and it did not have a good view of anything, but it did have stables with loose boxes, a garage, a six-roomed gardener’s cottage and a grass tennis court. The house had six principal rooms downstairs, including a library, and there were five bedrooms, three staff bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. It was lit by electricity, not gas. The estate agents, C. J. and T. Ham, later described the house as being a “magnificent brick cemented mansion” “constructed on noble lines” and “ handsomely designed.”  At the front there were wide balconies on both the ground floor and the first floor. Violet Syme loved it. It was the first house she had that was really her own, which she could furnish as she liked, and where her housekeeping was not under the constant supervision of her mother-in-law.  However, she only lived at Banool for about eight years, a time when she had two more daughters, Joan born in 1910 and Felicity in 1914.
The decision to leave Banool came when Annabella Syme died in August 1915. Blythswood was now empty. Geoffrey must have had great difficulty in persuading his wife to move to Blythswood. She didn’t like the house and she had not liked her intimidating mother-in-law.  She was very happy in their house in Studley Park Road. But Blythswood was her husband’s childhood home and he loved it much more than he loved Banool.
Probably Blythswood was not wanted by any of Geoffrey’s brothers. Herbert had lived next door at Rockingham since 1901, Francis lived at Dalry near Healesville, Arthur, who practised as a doctor, lived in the main street of Lilydale, and Oswald now farmed at Bolobek, near Macedon. None of them needed to move to a large, depressing, rather neglected house in Kew. Blythswood was distinctly gloomy, although Annabella Syme, her younger daughter Olive, and her niece Martha Johnson had continued to live there since David Syme’s death. It needed a lot of expensive repairs, painting and re-building. Basic things had to be fixed, including major alterations for the kitchen and building a bathroom and three bedrooms for the staff, as well as modernizing the plumbing and fixing the slate roof. Annabella had died in wartime, so it was not a good time for Geoffrey to begin to renovate a house.

It is interesting to contrast Blythswood as it was during Geoffrey’s ownership, with the sort of place it must have been when his parents first bought it in 1882, and when his widowed mother and unmarried sister were living there from 1908-1915. He had to transform it for his young family. His wife would not have been happy surrounded by too many memories of Annabella.

From early 1916 until 1952, when Geoffrey and his wife and family, and, finally, his widow, lived at Blythswood their visitors usually came to the front door, having driven or, occasionally, walked up the long drive. The portico and balcony over the front door were not part of the original house, though probably they were added before David Syme bought the house in 1882.  The door was painted dark green. At its centre was a big brass doorknob, and beside it was an electric bell that was encircled by a wide brass ring. There were narrow panels of stained glass on either side of the door, and two more panels in the door itself. Above it was lunette, also of stained glass. All the stained glass was patterned with flowers in pale blues and greens, with an occasional brighter flower. The original front hall had been quite short, and the lower part of its walls had panels of pressed steel about waist high. These went as far as the two Corinthian pillars that stood at the doors of the dining room and library. When Geoffrey began the alterations these panels, and indeed all the downstairs walls, were painted white. In Annabella’s time they would have been the more practical and once fashionable fawn or pale brown.
The two pillars always seemed to be part of the original house, but of course they were not.  They are just part of Geoffrey’s alterations to the house, and had been put there to support the ceiling, when the two rooms at the front of the house were extended to include the narrow passage that had been behind them.

The old front staircase was very steep and narrow, so a new staircase was built. The side hall became wider than in Annabella’s time. In this side hall, where one could see them every time one went up or down the front stairs, hung two almost life size portraits of Violet Syme’s grandparents, Emma and James Garnett. James was resplendent in his scarlet mayoral robes and chain of office, for he had been Mayor of Clitheroe from1882-1887. His elder brother, William Garnett of Low Moor House, who had also been Mayor of Clitheroe, had presented the chain to the borough. It is a splendid one, with an enamelled portrait of Queen Victoria and the larger links of its chain decorated with crowns and coronets. All of its decoration has some direct connection with the history of Clitheroe. In the accompanying portrait James’ wife Emma Garnett, a Newstead from York, looks rather sad and gentle. She was always referred to as being delicate. Her hair is parted in the middle and she wears a dark dress and a lace cap. She must have been very pretty when she was younger.

In 1902, when Violet Syme arrived in Australia and first saw the hall at Blythswood it must have been rather hideous. One can read what it was in it from the list that was compiled by John Buchan for the assessment of Annabella Syme’s Probate tax. The list is dated 15th September 1915, the month after she died. The hall floor was covered with linoleum, as indeed, were almost all the rooms and passages in the house – except for the polished boards in the big room that Violet eventually made into her drawing room. A strip of Axminster carpet lay down the middle of the hall and it contained a walnut ‘flower-holder’, a Japanese palm stand, a stick stand and a walnut hat stand. Deer heads and antlers hung on the wall. The hall must have opened out into a bigger space because the list includes some bigger furniture, amongst it a dark oak dresser, a seat and chairs, a bookcase and a table.
 At least one portrait was painted of David Syme, and surely his wife must have been painted too, A portrait of David had hung on the wall of the original narrow front stair-case, though this may not have been the Tom Roberts portrait, since there is no mention of the artist or its value in the list prepared for Probate.  Beside it was another oil painting, “Deer on the moor,” and there were two prints, one of the Opening of Federal Parliament in 1901 and another entitled “The worship of Bacchus.” This was an odd collection of subjects, especially the picture of Bacchus, since David had such strong views on the subject of drink that the big cellar under the house was kept almost empty. It was almost empty in Geoffrey’s time too.

It is doubtful if David Syme entertained many of his business or political friends at home. He did that at his office or at the Athenaeum Club. Geoffrey was a bit different; where confidential business was concerned he brought his friends and colleagues home to his library, which was a great deal more private than his office at The Age.
The description of the library’s contents in 1915 does not seem at all like Geoffrey’s library. It must have been singularly unattractive. Linoleum surrounded the Persian carpet and the rug.  In it there were rattan chairs, a seagrass armchair, an ottoman, three tables, a walnut couch, a wicker paper stand and five walnut bookcases. Also two hundred and eighty-five books, valued for Probate at £10. This room at the right hand side of the front door was always known as the library, though Annabella may have changed the rooms around, for one wonders where she entertained her family and friends and where she did her capable organization of people for the various charities that interested her. Probably, instead of the library, her husband’s province, she used the rather dark room next to the library. It looked south, onto the side verandah.
Geoffrey‘s library, though the same room as his father’s, looked quite different, despite the fact that his father’s roll-top desk still stood near the window and he had kept a long glass-fronted mahogany bookcase, which held old volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and various well-bound but probably unread books, some of which had been written by his father. Blythswood’s real library was upstairs, in the front part of the house, a small room lined wall-to-wall with pale green bookshelves, and there were other bookshelves all over the place, in almost every room.
Geoffrey had had his library extended by about 12 feet, a shining parquetry floor replaced the linoleum, and on the new floor there was a large Persian rug with a turquoise blue background. The small black open grate had been altered to an open fireplace, there was a sofa and easy chairs covered with delphinium pattered cretonne, and the four long windows had pale green silk curtains. Two of these windows had been the back windows of the original house, but now looked onto the side hall. He also had an octagonal gaming table especially made; it had little drawers to hold the cards and counters. Gambling was a rather surprising side to Geoffrey’s somewhat frugal character. Every Thursday night he gambled with his friends at the Athenaeum Club, coming home with gold-covered boxes of chocolates to placate his wife.  She disliked his gambling friends more than the gambling.
To be fair, the list for Probate seems to have added things that were not always kept in the library and were simply brought into the room for the purpose of valuation. One would hardly have expected David Syme to have worked surrounded with things like nickel-plated silver entrée dishes and vegetable dishes, toast racks and a huge amount of cutlery. Oddly enough very few of these things were actually silver. Annabella seems to have had a passion for silver-plate.
The list of paintings in the room might be correct. It included five oil paintings, one of sheep, others of Dutch cattle and New Zealand scenery, none of which were retained by Geoffrey. Nevertheless he still kept a few relics of his childhood: A bronze tiger and an ivory tusk stood on the bookcase, and a rather dull watercolour of an Arab camp hung beside his desk.
 Near the side door into the little red-tiled courtyard was a small room called the office. Not that Geoffrey worked there, though it had a desk surmounted by a photograph of his father. This was the only picture of David Syme in the whole house. Geoffrey just hung his hat and coat here and worked in the library. The room had two functions; the first was as a repository for the papers and bills and receipts and ledgers that filled the pale pine shelves that lined one of its walls. Its second function was as the entrance to the only downstairs lavatory in the front part of the house. This was a very small dark room with a basin and lavatory. Over its door was a board covered with the blue red and white ribbons Geoffrey had won with his prize Dexter Kerry Cattle and Dorset Horn sheep. All visitors who needed to use a lavatory had to go to this most Spartan place. Even though it was next to the drawing room, there was no other place to take them.

The dining room still had traces of Geoffrey’s parents, even though his wife had tried valiantly to remove them.   Like the library, the room had been lengthened, and the walls were now painted a very delicate green, the ceiling was white, and a big Venetian chandelier hung over the centre of the table. The linoleum had been banished. But it still had Annabella’s furniture, which Violet just managed to tolerate, and the room was dominated by the tall, carved mantelpiece that was a smaller version of the one in the drawing room.  It really was a mantelpiece, not just a mantelshelf above a fireplace. Beside the fireplace stood the big, worn black leather armchair in which both David and, later, Geoffrey sat before breakfast while they began their examination of each day’s copy of The Age.
David’s chair at the head of the table was different to all the others in the room. It was of pale tan leather, barrel-shaped, with a low curved back. Most of the dining room furniture had been especially made for Annabella by an Italian craftsman who worked in Melbourne. The backs of the straight-backed chairs had rather rough carvings of birds and flowers and their seats were of brown leather, These chairs, the sideboard and the two long tables, one of which could be extended to seat about twenty-four people, would now be both valuable and interesting examples of the taste of the early 1880’s, but Geoffrey only paid his father’s Estate £17-10-0 for the lot.

Violet made another effort to make the dining room her own. On the tall sideboard was arranged a massive display of her Garnett silver, including the huge tray given them by her Great-Uncle William Garnett, a tea and coffee set with the Garnett crest and various salvers. None of it was Syme silver.

According to the Probate list there were about twenty paintings in the dining room, all of which were taken by other members of the family. One doubts if Violet regretted the departure of such scenes as The Fiddler (by Loden), Boy and girl in the snow (by Lassell), Child at the gate (artist unknown) Norwegian fjord (by Gourlay) or Monkey (by van der Vos). By now they may be valuable Victorian works of art, but she replaced them all with a late 17th century, rather dark little oil painting, reputedly of Queen Anne. Another of her ways of expunging Annabella was to make sure the table was always beautifully set, especially for parties. She always had a colour scheme, so one looked at the table rather than at the furniture. Her épergne was usually at the centre of the table, with candelabra and bowls of flowers on either side of it, or, at Christmas time, small Christmas trees decorated with glass balls. Sometimes she chose lace tablemats, but for parties she used tablecloths, either of white or pale pink or blue damask, or of silver or green and silver tissue or, less often, patterned with flowers. Once, for a staff dinner (men only) she got in a florist to arrange the centre of the table as a miniature golf course with several fairways and holes and complete with trees, grass and a club house.

In David Syme’s time the big room that was to become his daughter-in-law’s drawing room had been a male province devoted to billiards and to smoking. It was not a place where his wife would have entertained her friends. Annabella probably chose the small dark room next door. This was part of the original house, and might have been a music room. In 1915 it seems to have contained a grand piano, a pianola, a music stool, a chesterfield settee, a walnut music cabinet, a mahogany circular table, an Italian walnut secretaire and a wicker afternoon-tea stand. The windows had Japanese bead blinds that had a Probate valuation of five shillings.
Another room, described as a drawing room but hard to identify, was also crowded with furniture. It had linoleum on the floor, with a Wilton carpet at its centre. There was a “A drawing room suite of nine pieces” (valued at £7 and taken by Francis Syme),” two ebony easy chairs in cretonne” (valued at £3 and taken by Herbert Syme), a “plush table,” (7/6, for Olive Syme) an inlaid walnut card table (£12 -10, taken by Geoffrey Syme) an octagon table, (£8-10, taken by Herbert Syme) a walnut cabinet, (£10, also for Herbert Syme). There was a walnut mirror with plush mountings (£1-10, for Francis Syme, who also took a walnut oval table valued at £8) and a mahogany china cabinet (£17-10, for Arthur Syme). Her daughter Lucie chose a bevelled mirror at 10/- There were many other things in the drawing-room, including a “lacquered what-not” at 7/6, a cake stand valued at 5/- and a pair of Indian muslin curtains at £3. There were also nineteen paintings, mostly unidentified watercolours, valued at an average of £3 - £4. Presumably each of Annabella Syme’s children had to pay their father’s Estate for what they chose to take from Blythswood.

Dining Room

In Geoffrey’s era there was not a single piece of Annabella’s furniture in his drawing room, the big room that had once been a billiard room. The open fireplace (and its huge mantelpiece) was the one reminder of the days of Annabella, though it probably had been designed for an earlier owner, Hutton, rather than for her. It was of dark brown wood, probably mahogany, quite highly polished, and it stretched almost up to the ceiling and took up most of the centre of the east wall of the room. It was heavily carved with gargoyles and satyrs and all sorts of birds and animals. No one knew if these had any particular relevance or meaning for whoever commissioned it. It was supposed to have several secret cupboards. David Syme certainly used them to keep private documents, but by the 1930’s no one knew how to find the cupboards or which knob or part of the carving to press to open them. Perhaps some documents or valuables were still hidden there when the house was burnt down, several years after Violet Syme’s death.

This drawing room was a long wide room with pressed steel panels along the lower part of its walls. These, like the walls and the slightly barrel-shaped ceiling, were all painted white, and there were three chandeliers to light the room. There were pale green silk curtains on the long windows that looked southwards towards Herbert’s house, Rockingham, which was now well hidden from sight by a privet hedge, elm trees and a forest of bamboo.
The billiard table had been banished from the room. In its place was a piano, a sofa and armchairs covered with wisteria-patterned cretonne, a big square gilded stool covered in pale mauve silk, and several little gilded chairs with oval backs and woven cane seats.  Violet‘s marquetry desk and tall marquetry corner cabinet were here - she loved 18th century and early 19th century marquetry, an interest she had inherited from her maternal grandmother, Fanny Garnett, whose house, Oakwood Hall, near Bingley, had been full of Georgian and early Victorian Dutch marquetry, some of which found its way to Blythswood. There were two small Buhl cabinets, and a glass-topped display cabinet which held Violet’s collection of Battersea enamel boxes. Luckily the tartan linoleum had not reached as far as this room, so a big Persian rug with a pale greyish-mauve background partly covered much of the polished floor.

A major alteration was the new kitchen wing on the northern side of the house, with trees and bushes separating it from the front drive.  It certainly was not a part of the original house, though some of it may have been a re-organization of the staff quarters of Annabella’s time. It now had a pantry for the parlour maid, with glass-fronted cupboards for silver, china and glass, and a window from which the parlour maid, the most senior member of the staff, could get a glimpse of the front drive and see what arrivals she had to greet at the front door. Violet Syme’s last parlourmaid, Mary McColl from Sterling, was very Scotch in her voice and vocabulary, and used to swear quite loudly as she trudged to the door to open it to someone whom she regarded as an unwelcome visitor. Next to the pantry was the flower pantry. It had green painted shelves and more cupboards and a huge refrigerator that was very modern in 1915 and continued to work perfectly for almost forty years.

The new kitchen was a long room with two windows. Between the windows was a coal-fuelled range with two ovens, and nearby, in an alcove, there was a very small gas stove, an Early Kooka with a kookaburra painted on its door.  The scullery at the end of the kitchen had two large china sinks and wooden racks for the newly washed plates to dry. It was probably part of Annabella’s kitchen, as was the rather dark room next door, which became the staff sitting room. In Violet Syme’s time the staff room was forbidden territory as far as children were concerned. It had a large dining table, comfortable chairs and an open fireplace, and no one was allowed to disturb the staff at their meals or during their time off duty. Except when there were big parties, when times or days had to be varied, this off-duty time consisted of one full day a week, most Saturday and Sunday afternoons, all Sunday evenings and at least three hours off each work-day afternoon, usually from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.  Dinner was at 7 p.m. and, except when there was a dinner party, only one or two of the staff ever worked as late as 8 p.m.
Directly above the kitchen were the new staff bedrooms, all painted a pale cream colour. There were two single rooms and another with two beds and also, a real innovation, a staff bathroom with its own lavatory. Annabella’s staff might have had a bathroom, but they would have had no choice but recourse to a commode or to china pots under their beds.

Perhaps it was upstairs at Blythswood that best shows the contrasting characters of Annabella and her English daughter-in-law. Both Annabella and Violet were born in Yorkshire: that was about all they had in common. A comparison of their bedrooms gives a particularly good example of how different they were. Presumably David and Annabella Syme slept at the front of the house, facing west, in the room directly over the dining room, whereas, at least for most of their married life at Blythswood, Violet and Geoffrey’s room faced south. Annabella had chosen to cover her bedroom floor with linoleum, though this was partly hidden by a Persian carpet. She had two wardrobes, one of Huon pine and the other of satinwood. She slept in a brass four-poster bed, which had the very low Probate valuation of just £1. She had a satinwood Duchesse table, also towel racks and a boot rack. There was a mantle drape, whatever that may have been. There is no record of the colours she chose, but they were probably ones that were fashionable in the 1880’s.
By contrast Violet, and for many years Geoffrey too, slept in a Victorian four-poster bed, (though one must admit that in later years he also had a single bed in his dressing room). Their four-poster bed was a high one, and a child needed a stool to climb onto it. It was piled with white pillows, the blankets were a very pale yellow, and its curtains and valance, like those of the curtains at the windows, were of cream and white French Toile de Jouy, patterned with scenes that were more floral than pastoral. The carpet was white, as were the wardrobes, low cupboards and bookcase.  There was a small fireplace, but dominating the room was a gilded console table, on which was a very big looking glass, with a gilded frame. Violet’s tortoiseshell and silver-mounted brushes, clothes brushes, mirror, and little boxes and ring cases were arranged on this table, together with her big square tortoiseshell jewel box, which was lined with scarlet leather and filled with little silver-topped bottles and jars.  It had a narrow secret drawer that opened at the bottom. There was not much room in it for jewellery.

Antonio Grossardi

There was one low white book case in the bedroom, but most of her books were in her library, which was just outside her bedroom door. This library was a small, square room with a little open fireplace. Its walls were lined floor-to-ceiling with pale green bookshelves crammed with books. There was only room for one chair and one small sofa, behind which stood a small statue of Winged Victory, given to her by a family friend, Commendatore Antonio Grossardi, who was the Italian consul in Melbourne in the 1920’s. He was in the Italian Diplomatic Corps and eventually became an Ambassador in South America and then in Portugal, but privately he was anti-Facist. He was the person who introduced Violet Syme to a great many Italian writers, both early and contemporary. They ranged from Dante to Leopardi, and from Manzoni and D'Annunzio to Pirandello and Moravia.

Violet was an omnivorous and very fastidious reader who could scarcely pass a bookshop without going inside and searching for something she wanted to read. She did not just content herself with English, French and Italian books, but was interested in American, Russian and German literature as well.  She kept herself very much up to date, though she had to read most of it in translation, since German was the only foreign language she spoke well. She had studied German as a schoolgirl, partly because it was a tradition in her family. Her great-grandfather, Joshua Riley, the father of her grandmother Fanny Garnett, was a banker who lived in Magdeburg in Prussia.  Fanny was born in Berlin in 1843. Violet also had German-born cousins, the four von Simsons, a boy and three girls, who were all younger than she was. They lived in considerable splendour in Berlin, and often came to Yorkshire. They were the grandchildren of her grandfather James Garnett's younger brother, Jeremiah Garnett of The Grange, Bromley Cross. Their mother, Lilian Garnett, who was two years older than Violet, had married Robert Ludwig Eduard von Simson, whose father, Eduard Simson, was President of the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848, and had been the first President of the Reichstadt. In 1888, at the time of the accession of Emperor Friedrich III, he was the presiding judge of the Supreme Court.
This small upstairs sitting room was also used by Annabella Syme though, unlike her daughter-in-law, she did not seem to have used it as a library or as a place for entertaining her friends.  It might have been more like an office, a room where she did her accounts. She worked closely with her husband. In a way theirs was a financial partnership, for her competency relieved him of the burden of dealing with the details of family life. Again there was linoleum on the floor of the room, though it had an Axminster carpet on top of it; there was a wicker chair worth 5/, a bamboo table valued at 4/-, a walnut cabinet valued at £3 and some more cabinets, possibly filing cabinets, valued at 3/-.  The curtains were of muslin. The fireplace had a bamboo overmantel, valued at £1-5-0, which Violet Syme instantly replaced with simple shelf and a small  gilt-framed Adam looking- glass. Annabella can't have had room for any bookshelves, though there seem to have been several pictures, including two watercolours described as landscapes, also a 'Woman on a balcony', a 'River and forest' and an unattractive-sounding picture called 'Children and snake.'
The furniture included a walnut desk with an iron safe, (valued at £7 and taken by Arthur Syme). Annabella kept most of her jewels upstairs in this safe and, reputedly, she enjoyed taking them out and looking at them. She often wore her lovely jewellery, which included a diamond necklace, (taken by Herbert Syme, and valued at £840) and three big diamond star brooches, one taken by Francis (£80), another by Geoffrey (£70) and the third by Oswald (£40). Arthur took an aigrette valued at £115 and Lucie, her elder daughter, a half hoop bracelet also valued at £115. There are fifty-four items of jewellery listed for Probate, the value of which was estimated at about £1600. Probably it was quite fairly divided, though there is no record of what was chosen for Olive, her unmarried daughter. Olive, an epileptic and very slightly retarded, had been given a life-interest in a house in Hawthorn, which was furnished entirely from her mother’s things, but her brothers and sister may not have allowed her much freedom of choice in what was given to her from Blythswood. She lived in Hawthorn until 1957 and was always well cared for, but Geoffrey, the one nearest to her in age, was the brother who was most thoughtful where she was concerned. He often went to see her. Lucie, also close to her in age, found her unmarried younger sister rather embarrassing.

In 1882, when David Syme and his large family moved into Blythswood, it was probably an empty house. They had moved around in the early years of their marriage, often renting houses, and collecting suitable, or perhaps just useful furniture as they did so.  It is hard to follow the trail of David and Annabella Syme’s rented houses. They had certainly lived in East Melbourne, Canterbury, East St. Kilda, Albert Park and at Macedon, though not necessarily in that order. When Annabella came to Blythswood she obviously wanted it to be decorated and furnished in the height of fashion, though, as always economical, she would have made use of whatever good furniture she already had.  Her father, John William Johnson, who was certainly not poor, may have given her some more. She may even have left the choice of the decoration of her new house to the 1880's equivalent of an interior decorator. This is doubtful, since she was much more likely to have told the furniture salesmen, painters, upholsterers and carpenters exactly what she wanted.
John William Johnson

Geoffrey was not brought up amongst objects of beauty, which might explain his lack of enthusiasm for letting his wife buy whatever she wanted to furnish Blythswood. Traces of his own or his mother's taste were more apparent in the back part of the house where Violet Syme seldom ventured. Some things, for example his collections of Papuan spears, were hung up high in a dark downstairs passage where nobody noticed them.
Nor did Violet quite succeed in removing Annabella's presence from the upstairs rooms in the back wing of the house. She had tried, but even though there was a long strip of plain carpet along the passage that linked these rooms it did not quite meet the walls and one could still see a couple of inches of the original fawn and green and tartan linoleum chosen by Annabella. Luckily the linoleum had faded, but it did not go well with the pale yellow wallpaper patterned with a delicate Chinese design of trees and small birds chosen by her daughter-in-law.

Nurse Waldie with Felicity Syme

After 1916 Blythswood was always crowded with family or visitors. Sometimes relations came from England and stayed for months. There were four bedrooms in the front of the house and another four in the back wing and they were seldom empty. Nurse Waldie, by now a housekeeper not a nurse, who had become Miss Waldie, slept at the back, overlooking the courtyard and the stables. Joan and Felicity's governess, Miss Juliet Bishop, ‘Bishie’, slept in a room further down the passage. It was much smaller but it was prettier that Nurse Waldie’s, with pink and white curtains patterned with damask roses. Nurse and Bishie disliked one another. Even when Bishie was both old and frail and her charges, Joan and Felicity, were grown up, Bishie stayed on at Blythswood. She retired about 1935, because of age and ill health.  Violet Syme would not dismiss anyone during the Depression, especially someone whom she knew could never find another job and whose small wage was helping to support four unemployed members of her own family.

A bathroom was part of the 1882 extensions to the back of the house. The white bath had ball and claw legs, and there was a lavatory with a long chain that one pulled to flush the lavatory bowl. Much later, in 1915, the bathroom was made more cheerful with new wallpaper, which had a pattern of little children laughing and blowing bubbles. A lot of Violet Syme’s changes to Blythswood had to be improvisations. As she had to live there it was important to her to make the rooms more cheerful, to get rid of things she hated and to make use of what she already possessed. She would never have employed a decorator; she got local workmen like carpenters and painters (Mr. Setford) and an upholsterer (Mr. Gossen) to do what she wanted, though always within a budget that was strictly limited by her husband.
The Probate List of the furniture, pictures and other objects that belonged to Annabella Syme contains many items that are indeed dismal. The total value was only £2,861. 8. 6.  John Buchan and Company did the valuation, which is dated 19th September, 19i5. Now many of these things would be extremely expensive to buy and be considered as good, collectable examples of late Victorian taste.  Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of rubbish amongst them and Violet must have been delighted that Geoffrey’s brothers Herbert, Francis, Arthur and Oswald, chose to take so much of the things that were on that list. His sisters Lucie Macalister and Olive Syme chose things too.
Annabella Syme was definitely a collector of objects, and not a connoisseur. In fact she had hideous taste. That was not necessarily her own fault, because what she chose in 1882 was not considered to be hideous at the time. It is unlikely that she employed a Melbourne equivalent of Duveen to guide her taste. He would have had to guide her very tactfully. Yet twenty years later, where Conisboro was concerned, she had no hesitation about getting a firm to decorate and furnish the house that was her wedding present to her son.
Annabella seems to have bought a great many pictures of little or no value, possibly because of their subject matter. There were 198 pictures on the Probate list; roughly half of these were oil paintings and the rest were watercolours.  She must have been interested in a lot of different subjects since the list includes pictures of a kingfisher, an (unidentified) lake scene, a moonlight scene, one of a village musician and a picture of a Norwegian fjord (it seems unlikely that she ever visited Scandinavia). There were some New Zealand scenes; perhaps her husband had bought the pictures of New Zealand when he went there shortly before his death.  According to the Melbourne magazine Punch, he was in New Zealand in 1907, “complaining piteously” about the Maori Land press taking its Australian political news from Sydney and bemoaning “the paucity of Australian news in M. L. papers.”
Violet Syme had an enormous task in making Blythswood a pretty and comfortable place to live in. She managed to do so. She made it a very happy house. Usually it was crowded with family, and always included a group of two or three live-in staff.
Violet was in fact a thwarted collector. To a large degree she was a connoisseur of furniture and china, though not of paintings. Perhaps she would have been like an Arabella Huntingdon if her husband had given her limitless money or if he had thought of furniture and art as an investment.  She would have enjoyed a Duveen to find her the things she really loved.  She had a very keen eye as to quality and detail.  She enjoyed going to antique dealers. One could describe her general taste as Edwardian, though usually without the clutter. Her preference was for pale colours, especially green. Her taste in furniture had been formed in England, by the 17th, 18th and 19th century Dutch and English marquetry of her mother's parents at Oakwood Hall, and by the 17th and 18th century oak furniture she had grown up with in Clitheroe. She also liked 18th century French furniture. She did not really like the Morris and Burgess and Burne-Jones influence that was so dominant at Oakwood Hall. These famous Victorians had all played a part in the building and decorating and designing of Oakwood in 1861.  It was a new house and a part of her grandmother’s dowry. Plans for some new furniture for Oakwood (which may never have been made) can be seen in the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects in Portland Place.
 For the most part her buying in Melbourne showed her homesickness for family things; when she bought furniture it usually reminded her of places and things she had known in her own family, not in her mother-in-law's.  Nor did she collect what was currently fashionable. Her taste in china was for Staffordshire figures, not for Meissen; she collected 18th century miniatures painted on ivory and Battersea enamel boxes, but not modern paintings. Had she been an Arabella Huntingdon and able to indulge her own taste she probably would have bought a Duccio or a Sassetta, rather than a Caravaggio. The vivid reds and blues and gold would have appealed to her more than baroque shadows and darkness.
The difference between Violet and Annabella was that at Blythswood Violet assembled things that she already owned, or else were similar to things she had known all her life. She did not create a house that was all of one period. And in many of its rooms she had to make do with what was available to her. Whereas Annabella seems to have started from scratch at Blythswood and created an 1880's house. Probably she could have spent whatever she liked, but she did not believe in undue luxury. Think of the many iron bedsteads and the linoleum and all that electro-plated nickel silver listed in the assessment for her Probate tax.

Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.