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Petal to the mettle

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 22 May 2019

Helen Blaxland judging flower arrangements, c. 1940s photographer unknown
Helen Blaxland judging flower arrangements, c. 1940s photographer unknown

“Doing the flowers” can be a joy, but don’t embark on too ambitious an arrangement if housework crowds in on you.

Evergreen advice on time management and keeping it real, it comes from an issue of the Women’s Weekly in the lead-up to Christmas 1965. ‘Flowers for Christmas’ was a feature from Sydney’s long-established authority on floral artistry, Helen Blaxland. Chic and strict, she was photographed for decades, typically pictured scrutinising an arrangement under a headline like ‘Good vases don’t just happen’. Yet over time, her interests were to deepen and expand, first to charity fundraising and ultimately to built-heritage conservation. By the late 1960s, while conceding still that there was no house that wasn’t improved by flowers, if entertaining, she advised, ‘ask some young girls; they are pretty and far cheaper!’

Born Helen Anderson in Sydney, the woman who evolved into Dame Helen Blaxland was educated at Bedales, Hampshire then at Frensham, Mittagong before taking art classes at Julian Ashton’s, Sydney. Her parents were a potent pair. Her father was Brigadier General Sir Robert McCheyne Anderson KCMG, and her mother, born Jean Amos, graduated in Arts from Sydney University just five years after the first women to do so. Helen married at twenty and was henceforth styled Mrs Gregory Blaxland. Though a mother by 22, she continued to eclipse such Younger Set peers as Miss Nuttie Mackellar and Ginette Scamps. She was a snappy dresser. Pre and post-war, her recorded outfits and accessories included an ensemble of lizard green wool crepe banded with opossum fur; an alpaca getup with a pale pink turban twisted round a cluster of pink roses; and a wide leopard muff that matched her tiny cloche. Along with that, she was tall and forthright. Even the way she moved was approved. At 27 she starred in a news feature on ‘Sydney Women Who Walk Well’ – ‘her freely swinging and courageous type of walk makes her the cynosure of many envious eyes on the golf links and beaches.’

Helen’s spouse, Gregory Hamilton Blaxland, was an engineer conscious of his antecedents. His mother was a Downer from Adelaide and his great-grandfather was Gregory Blaxland, one of the first white men to see country west of the Blue Mountains. Amongst family papers at Camden Park is a Blaxland family tree running back to the era of William the Conqueror. Sydney’s very corners whispered of young Blaxland’s pedigree. The elder explorer Gregory Blaxland’s brother, John, lived for a time at the intersection of Market and George Streets Sydney, and that’s how the Blaxland Galleries in Farmers Department Store got their name in 1929. John Blaxland proceeded to build a fine home, Newington, on the Parramatta River. After his trip with Lawson and Wentworth, Gregory Blaxland grew grapes at his property, Brush Farm on the Field of Mars, becoming the first man to export wine from Australia. The young Blaxlands proclaimed the connection by transferring the funny name to the house in which they lived in Woollahra from the 1940s to the early 1970s: Brush.

The histories of the Blaxland brothers’ houses echo those of quite a few big-ticket Australian colonial homes, with which few have ever known quite what to do, and for which few have ever really wanted full responsibility for long. Brush Farm became the Carpentarian Reformatory for Boys in 1894. Within 50 years it was a school for feeble-minded and other female wards of the state aged four to fourteen years. Purchased by the Department of Corrective Services in the late 1980s, it was soon sold to Ryde Council, but still houses a training centre for corrective services officers, with spaces available for party hire. Similarly, up to 1968 John Blaxland’s Newington saw use as a reformatory school; a hospital and an old women’s asylum; was threatened with demolition; then transferred to what was then the NSW Department of Prisons. Now accommodating office staff, it stands in a designated Conservation Area in the grounds of the Silverwater Correctional Complex.

Antonia Blaxland at Brush, c.1944 by Max Dupain

Newington is considered one of the three extant colonial house treasures of the County of Cumberland, along with Elizabeth Bay House and Camden Park House, the latter built for John Macarthur. While Helen Anderson married into the Blaxland family, her daughter, Antonia ‘Toni’ Blaxland, married into the Macarthur-Stanham family. Thus it came about that by the mid-1980s mother and daughter were both living at Camden Park, near Menangle on the southwest outskirts of Sydney. The cottage Dame Helen occupied was also called Brush.

During the war of 1939-1945 the combination of existing public interest in Blaxland, her energy and her contacts was a boon for the New South Wales Division of the Red Cross. Search Mrs Gregory Blaxland in Trove, and the names of both her favoured artists and affluent friends crop up repeatedly, in parallel, intersecting and crisscrossing. In early 1940 she convened a buffet dinner for her chapter of the Australian Women’s Ski Club at Toft Monks, home of Mrs Penfold Hyland. In March, hers was the organising hand behind an Easter benefit buffet dinner dance at Romano’s. In May Mrs Penfold Hyland was chair of the display committee of the ‘Englishman’s Home’ exhibition, held in David Jones’ George Street Store, for which Blaxland arranged Australian furniture and pictures in a Pioneer Australia Room. The immediate result of the exhibition was £2 500 for the Red Cross, but as art historian Andrew Montana points out, the displays also served to ‘foster Englishness in Australia’ at a crucial time. In early winter of 1941 Blaxland presided over an event emphatically evoking the solidarity of the Empire: a Red Cross curry tiffin and stage-show event for some 3 000 people at the Town Hall involving a recipe purportedly donated by an actual Rajah, eight society hostesses, eight buffet stations, three sittings, 1050 pounds of meat and 43 ½ pounds of sultanas.

The young Blaxlands were patrons of Sydney artists. Over time, flowers photographed in their home nestled beneath pictures by the likes of David Strachan, William Dobell and  Donald Friend. Mrs Blaxland encouraged employment of odd items as vases; in the spring of 1952 the Weekly showed a curated corner of Brush in which she’d set a clamlike shell of crimson carnations under a Drysdale and a Nolan. By then she was widely renowned for her knack with flora. A display of arrangements in aid of Free Kindergartens at Yarrien, Toorak in Melbourne evolved into ‘an important artistic event’ at which ‘decorative arrangements usually seen only by the privileged few in private homes were on view to the public’.

In its fawning report, the Age predicted ‘there will be considerable interest in the contribution of Mrs Gregory Blaxland, one of Australia’s leading authorities on flower arrangements’. In 1954 she and Margaret Preston each arranged a bowl of West Australian wild flowers in windows of David Jones. By then, Blaxland was a force on the council of the new Art Gallery Society of New South Wales. In a chapter about the Society in his amusing autobiography, former director Hal Missingham recalled that ‘in the main its members were recruited from “high society”, used to having their own way in ordering affairs and impatient of outside restraints. They tended to treat both my staff and myself as their servants.’ Over time, hackles flattened on both sides, and by the end of his term he had to concede that the collection had benefited from the Society’s fundraising activities. 

Blaxland’s book Flower Pieces, published in 1946 and reissued in whimsical miniature in 1949, contains commonsensical tips such as not to put shaggy-legged stocks in a clear glass vase and that putting too many blooms too low in the vase creates a puddingy effect. She dismisses as ‘sheerest poppycock’ advice about how, through dedicated daily procedures, cut flowers might be made to last a little longer, stating flatly that in the execution of such routines ‘the doing of flowers, from being a delight, would become a bore’. Delightful or not, flowers will have it their way. When she opened an exhibition at David Jones’ in September 1949 Blaxland suggested that painting flower arrangements was comparatively easy: ‘Unlike the decorator, artists don’t have to worry if the bunch of flowers all lean to the left and have no stalks. They can just alter the flowers to perfection and then top it off with a bloom that’s been out of season for months.’

For Flower Pieces Max Dupain, Olive Cotton and Russell Roberts photographed floral constructions in series of considered tableaux, comprising artworks from the Blaxlands’ collection, textiles and ceramics ‘talking’ to each other. Paintings are mostly by artists associated with the so-called Merioola Group: Francis Lymburner, Jocelyn Rickards, Elaine Haxton, Sali Herman, Loudon Sainthill and William Dobell. Helen Blaxland commissioned Jocelyn Rickards to paint a mural on an outside wall of Brush in 1946. Flower Pieces is dotted throughout with femininely surrealist sketches of urns, drapes, garlands, putti, discombobulated heads and hands by Elaine Haxton.

Each woman proceeded to a successful career in art and design. Rickards (standing on the ladder in Alec Murray’s famous photograph of the Merioola crowd) was to design costumes for some of the defining British films of the 1960s and early 1970s including From Russia with Love, Blowup, Ryan’s Daughter and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Haxton, subject of a dainty and fantastical painting by William Dobell in 1941 (it was exhibited in the Archibald in early 1942, purchased by the Lloyd Joneses, who hung it in their dining room, and is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia) won the Sulman Prize for murals of the Ballets Russes in the mid-1940s. A broad traveller and a happy resident of Pittwater, she worked lifelong as a painter, designer and illustrator and in 1956 she was a member of Professor Fitzgerald’s five-week Cultural Delegation to China.

Helen Blaxland and Tonia, 1941 by William Dobell

Between 1944 and 1949 Blaxland’s command of flowers, her art contacts and her ambitions for the Red Cross plaited together triumphantly in annual floral festivals in the Domain. In 1946, when exhibitors included Jocelyn Rickards, Thea Proctor and her tragically dashing cousin Hera Roberts, Loudon Sainthill contrived backgrounds and props for the arrangements. Handsome Sainthill had a plethora of admirers, but his career as one of London’s great theatre and film set designers lay before him. The next year, the centrepiece of Sydney’s Red Cross Chelsea Flower Show was a gay tent he’d conjured up, in pink and white stripes with sundry mediaeval touches, modelled on one in the Laurence Olivier film of Henry V – the play itself a powerful piece of British propaganda from its debut in 1600 onwards. The tent was used for three flower festivals before Sainthill departed for London with his partner, Harry Tatlock Miller, in 1949. The next year Helen Blaxland was on hand to ‘do the flowers’ for an exhibition of French Pointillist paintings at Miller’s Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, London.

All her life, Blaxland was unable to sound out the letter ‘R’ – although it’s doubtful that this impeded her in any way. Various friends tell the story of her dining with Patrick White, their exchange going something along the lines of ‘Patwick, your books are so hard to wead’, and his replying ‘Yes Helen – and they are so hard to wite’. She lent her style and skills to several fundraisers for the Bush Book Club, an organisation dedicated to sending parcels of carefully vetted books to families on the land. In late 1949 startlingly eclectic works were raffled; Helen Blaxland signed hers; Dorothea Mackellar signed hers and Patrick White signed his. (Only one of them won the Nobel Prize for Literature.) ‘In Honour of the Rose’, at David Jones in the spring of 1951, was a Bush Book Club fundraiser featuring rose arrangements by ‘more than twenty-five well known people’. Blaxland ‘set a standard of excellence among all those who worked with her’, recalled her long-term friend Caroline Simpson; but in a necessarily brief biography for the Australian Dictionary of Biography she found space to say that Blaxland spoke airily of ‘twampling on gwass woots’. By contrast, Miss Beulah Bolton, secretary of the Bush Book Club for 40 years, is described in the Dictionary as ‘a handmaiden to Sydney’s social elite’. It’s a discomfiting reminder that many charitable triumphs of the period came off in an atmosphere of the Senior Girls’ Common Room.

Rachel Roxburgh, 1939 by Adelaide Perry

In 1941 Helen Blaxland gave William Dobell his first portrait commission. Though it’s fair to say that his rendering of her, Toni and their Sealyham, Crown, didn’t turn out quite as Blaxland expected, it’s a captivatingly arch picture by Dobell, whose painting was soon to brush off any fluff of the ‘charm school’. It was first hung in a Society of Artists show at the Department of Education Gallery, proceeds from which benefitted the Red Cross. The exhibition was managed by a young artist called Rachel Roxburgh. In the 1970s, Roxburgh – a potter, a historian, a teacher, a bushwalker, a defender of forests, a keen surfer and a competitive equestrienne, as well as the first woman elected to the Wingecarribee Shire Council and an honorary life member of the National Trust (NSW) – contributed profoundly to preservation and knowledge of historic houses of New South Wales.

The story goes that by 1961, the National Trust councillors felt the need of a group to furnish supper after their meetings. Instead of a ladies’ auxiliary, however, the ‘legendary’ Women’s Committee formed, with Helen Blaxland as chair and members including Rachel Roxburgh and the remarkable Cherry Jackaman (born in the family home, Craig-Y-Mor on Wolseley Road, Point Piper, she donated her own home, Varroville, to the Trust in 1990). Lady Lloyd Jones was patron, and they first met formally in the Blue Room of David Jones in Elizabeth Street. From the outset, Blaxland envisaged the Women’s Committee as a money-making enterprise, and to this end, the women’s wizard notion was the paid House Inspection. The first raised £50 for Experiment Farm Cottage, purchased by the Trust after Rachel Roxburgh had spotted it for sale in the real estate column of the Sydney Morning Herald. Blaxland’s networks were crucial to the acquisition of significant furniture and historic objects for Experiment Farm Cottage and later Old Government House, Parramatta, as she called on her friends to donate treasures that she knew perfectly well they had. According to Caroline Simpson, it was in this context that the terrible term ‘Australiana’ was coined.

Antonia Blaxland by Tom Thompson

In 1962 Blaxland and Roxburgh organised the exhibition No Time to Spare. Highlighting Sydney’s threatened colonial architectural gems, masterfully photographed by Max Dupain, it toured, and is said to have gained 1 000 members for the Trust. While the name No Time to Spare is self-explanatory, it evokes, too, the decisive and effective nature of the women involved in the committee – impatient with obstacles, disdainful of bureaucrats and focused on results. House inspections, which were quite often in people’s private homes (including the Lloyd Joneses’, and Blaxland’s own) were masterminded and overseen by volunteers called Cherry Bows. They handed out informative, lively pamphlets written by Rachel Roxburgh and performed other duties according to Operation Cherry Bow, a procedural manual written by Joan Furber, whom Blaxland recruited for the Committee after seeing her serving tea for 700 people at Camden Park.

Helen Blaxland, 1967 by Bryan Westwood

In 1967 Blaxland was the subject of a striking and haunting portrait by an emerging artist, Bryan Westwood, which was hung in the Archibald for 1967. It conveys the chill of a Juliet balcony of Brush at four on a winter’s afternoon. In her satin skirt of icy eau de nil, Blaxland’s framed by tangled canes of bare wisteria and visited, improbably, by a little bird; a bowl, perilously placed, is another dreamlike element. The architecture’s sharp, but the woman’s face is blurred; her image seems to be fading as she regards us from a dissipating, evanescing world. In 1969, Blaxland’s husband died. In widowhood, she lived at the Silchester apartments in Bellevue Hill. Moving, finally, to live with Toni, she brought the very large Westwood to Camden Park House, where it now hangs in the only viable space. Easier to accommodate is Tom Thompson’s attractive, though enigmatic portrait of Toni, apparently painted while the artist was under the influence (of the Italian Renaissance).

The Women’s Committee is credited with a great increase in paid membership of the Trust by the mid-1980s, and the preservation of several specific properties. Roxburgh steered the fundraising campaign for the restoration of Francis Greenway’s St Matthew’s Church in Windsor, for example. On the fundraising front, she wrote and compiled several years’ editions of the National Trust Diary, which sat atop the phone book beside many a rotary-dial phone of the period. Blaxland was chair of the Lindesay Management Committee from 1964 to 1976, after which – as Dame Helen Blaxland – she became the pretty house’s ‘honorary housekeeper’. When Tamie Fraser established the Australiana Fund to acquire works of art and furniture for the Lodge, Kirribilli House, Government House and Admiralty House, Dame Helen was made its chair. It’s no coincidence that the first gift to the Australiana Fund was furniture from the Women’s Committee of the National Trust of Australia (NSW), or that by March 1979 30 items had been acquired, including a plaque of James Macarthur donated by the Macarthur-Stanham family of Camden Park.

By the time Blaxland moved to Camden Park, Roxburgh was established at Throsby Park, near Moss Vale, living in an outbuilding dating from 1828 and for twelve years throwing and firing pottery in the nearby stables. Throsby Park was purchased by the State Government in the mid-1970s. Between the publication of her books Early Colonial Houses of New South Wales (1974) and Colonial Farm Buildings of New South Wales (1978) – the glossiest products in her remarkable body of historical work, with the former among wedding presents sent from the NSW Government to Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981 – Roxburgh was chair or a member of various committees established to progress the site. Copious papers she gave to the National Library show the excruciatingly slow and complex business of keeping a historic house standing, let alone restoring it. Roxburgh’s papers show that between 1975 and 1985 the Throsby Park House Committee alone met 51 times to address the terms of reference and formulate a plan of management, all the while chalking up practical issues. In 1974 the roof of the house was failing; it was repaired in 1980. Electrical wiring found faulty in 1982 was addressed in 1984. Throughout, Roxburgh kept handwritten balance sheets detailing the odd purchase, the cost of repairs and restoration, and donations including books, chairs, a coalscuttle, lace curtains and an embroidered bell pull.

From the 1980s, the Trust was riven with discord as rising museum and heritage professionals made the grand old volunteers look like outrageous relics of yesteryear, violating best practice on every mantelpiece and wood stove. Blaxland said in 1986 that she’d resign from the Trust if she could, but her honorary life membership prevented it. Now, consideration of colonial artefacts and architecture comprises what they effaced and whom they displaced, and rightly so. It’s worth remembering, though, that some colonial structures are now only available for re-interpretation, their significance only available for re-evaluation because Blaxland and her cronies, some of them amateurs in the true sense of the word, acted – if high-handedly – as if there was no time to spare. As a starstruck Women’s Committee admirer wrote of her in 1964:

That other Helen brought Troy to dust
But you would have saved it for the Trust.