Martindale Hall, pictured above, is considered one of the Architectural jewels of South Australia, located near the town of Mintaro in the Clare Valley, approximately 2 hours from Adelaide. Built for the pastoralist Edmund Bowman in 1879 at great cost, it was the central property of a wool empire that stretched across South Australia. Apparently built to entice a girl he wanted to marry to leave her English family house (supposedly it was a replica), she refused to leave England for the colonies and he eventually married another, settling into his 32 room estate with attendant polo ground, cricket field and extensive stables. Just 20 years later however, a long drought and a drop in wool prices saw his empire fall, and the property was sold at a knock down price to the Mortlock family. They lived in it until the 1950's when it was bequeathed to the University of Adelaide, who in turn handed it over to the State Government of South Australia in 1986. For some years it has been open as a house museum, and up until recently was run as a historic style bed and breakfast with all the attendant comforts you'd expect from a Victorian era house with a lack of modern facilities.... Many readers both here in Australia and overseas will be familiar with the house, as it starred as the school Appleyard College in the hauntingly classic Australian movie "Picnic at Hanging Rock" released in 1976.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

All this preamble is to set the scene of the next act: A proposal has been put forward by two groups regarding the future of Martindale Hall- one a private consortium who approached the government last year to buy the property in order that they could turn it into a luxury resort/ hotel. The counter proposal has come from the National Trust, who are pressuring the Government to gift the property to them, and have put together a 'dynamic plan' to run it as a museum space with festivals in the grounds, a newly created Victorian style garden, gift shop and cafe etc - standard National Trust style stuff.

The current operators of the Hall have enlisted the support of the Actress that played Miranda in the movie to entreat the government not to turn it over to developers and "take it away from the general public" pushing for it to be handed to the Trust. This has, of course, made headlines around the country. Naturally no one wants the greedy luxury hotel developers to take away public access! We are nothing if not egalitarian in Australia. But I have to admit to having mixed feelings about having the house handed over to the Trust. Perhaps, as abhorrent as it might first sound, a luxury hotel is actually a much better idea, on a number of levels.

Still from the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock

Firstly, luxury tourism is big, big business around the world. Australia has a decided lack of it when compared to countries like neighbouring New Zealand and their Luxury Lodge tourism that draws visitors from around the world, and this prevents a coveted segment of the tourism market from coming here with all the flow on benefits that would bring to the area. Developing historic properties into Country House hotels, which have been done so successfully in the UK revitalising and giving them relevancy, would be a major tourist draw here. This property sits right in the middle of one of the best wine regions in the country with a distinct lack of luxury accommodation to draw in a big spending sector of the tourism market. We have beautiful Heritage buildings in South Australia, ironically because we have had such a protectionist view point over them - but finding one to stay in is difficult unless you look at the holiday cottage segment of the tourism market. Everything else is brand new, which is a shame when you consider that South Australia's heritage properties are one of the more recognisable and celebrated features of our State.

Miranda from Picnic at Hanging Rock

Secondly, we have a number of properties already being run by the National Trust around Adelaide and they highlight some of the problems associated with the House- as- Museum concept. If you visit a stately home in the UK, the ones that give the best experiences to the visitor are the ones that still have the family living in them. The ones that are empty, and run purely as a House Museum by the UK branch of the National Trust can feel staid and lifeless, and sometimes be presented in a manner that is a little twee ("Ye Olde Worlde"). Families and people give a house life. It is the layering of changes of fashion, of the quirks of lives lived within it that make it interesting and that tell the narrative of why the house was created and how that relates to us and to the wider world.

Here in Australia our National Trust properties are all long vacant of the families that once lived in these grand houses. I have visited Beaumont House, Ayres House, Carrick Hill and Urrbrae House here in Adelaide, and various properties in Melbourne such as Como House and Ripponlea, and they are slightly dispiriting with an overlay of the Institutional feel to them. Guides are occasionally dressed in fake period costume, partially furnished rooms are set in aspic from a time period determined as 'correct' (but not necessarily the furniture or furnishings that were in that room at that time - they are recreations) can leave me a little cold. The richness that you get from visiting a living, breathing house is not there.

This is an issue that is currently being debated at great length in the UK (see the past few issues of Country Life magazine if you are interested, and I noticed that Ben Pentreath, whose blog is on my side bar also waded into the fray on this topic on his blog a few weeks back). We haven't had a discussion in Australia as to whether these types of experiences are the best use of these properties, because generally we look at our history with a blindly protectionist viewpoint - we have so little of this kind of built Architecture, and what we have is so recent when compared to other countries, that there is a universal favouritism of keeping the old and preserving it at all costs... even when that doesn't make it dynamic or as the best use of that facility.

So, back to Martindale Hall. Some of the things that have been overlooked in the debate are that this house has not had a family living in it for 70 years, which is half the age of the property, rendering it something of a white elephant. Most of the original contents from when it was first built were sold after the Bowmans left the property in a Mortgagee sale, with only a few pieces the Mortlocks purchased still remaining. The remaining furniture in the public viewing rooms are from that Mortlock period of the house's history. Other rooms are re-creations in a Victorian style. There is no reason why a hotel with a publicly accessible aspect to it couldn't co-mingle with the historic element. There is also no reason why this property has to be sold to be developed, rather than being kept by the government. It could be on long term lease, with stringent controls over maintenance, upkeep, approvals and public access. If this were the case, then I would hope a publicly called tender would go forward, and that the selected operator and developer would be the one that would provide the best long term solution for the property, not necessarily just the person that had an idea and approached the State Government first.

Historic properties are a difficult quandary. We can all watch episodes of Downton Abbey to get a meticulously and historically accurate recreation of a period of history and the people that would have lived within that time, with actors dressed, speaking and behaving as they did then. Walking through staid room sets in an empty house being led around by someone in a costume is not necessarily going to give a better or more enriching experience. When you balance that against the drawcard of the tourism component and the revitalisation that could bring, then perhaps a hotel is not such a bad idea. The house has been run as a museum for a long time now and it is not the main reason why people visit the Clare Valley, rather a side trip for those interested in old buildings. Making a destination out of it, with the Clare as the added bonus is an idea worth pursuing. Running the property as a National Trust museum with an adventure playground will likely not see tourism numbers soar in the region.

It's an unfashionable view to put forward. Long term blog readers will know I have a love of History and Architectural History in particular, and I do support the important work of the National Trust. But we do need to question whether these Historic House Museums are a success. Ayers House, a large mansion that is in the centre of the Adelaide CBD is essentially a Wedding venue and House Museum... how many of these types of venues do we need - all stuck circa 1880, all 'teaching' us the same things. Our built history is worth preserving, but we need to do so in a way that will breath life and relevancy to these properties. Sometimes development is not necessarily such a bad thing when it is done with sensitivity, and most importantly, done well.

bedroom by Nicky Haslam

"Chuck out the Chintz" the British were told in the 1990's by an award winning IKEA advertisement. Chintz has been unequivocally associated with traditional English Country House style decorating for over 150 years. The attempt by IKEA to move the British out of the traditional country house zone and into modern Scandinavian design was by denigrating a very old, and very traditional fabric choice. Chintz itself originally came from India, and was exported around the world from the 1650's. Eventually it was banned in France, aside from being able to be worn inside the French court, which of course only increased its fashionability. When the ban was lifted Chintz was used not only for clothing but eventually for curtains and soft furnishings, which is where you find it still used today.

Via Jean Monro

Chintz itself is any floral pattern on a white background, and by the 1800's these were glazed (initially with sugar, then with a chemical process which was used up until the 1980's when it was banned as being highly carcinogenic) to give a glossy sheen across the fabric. Many of the chintz patterns in production today stem from French documents, despite this being a quintessentially English style of decorating, but the past 15 years in decorating have not been kind - Fabric companies tend to discontinue unpopular fabrics, and as the fickle wheel of fashion turned venerable companies like Colefax and Fowler shed Chintz fabrics from their ranges, replacing them with more commercially popular alternatives. The printing of Chintz patterns onto cotton fabrics was also reduced, a softer finish on linen was preferred.

Quintessential English Country House decorating - Bowood by Colefax and Fowle

There are only so many variations on a theme however, the past 10 years of neutral colour palettes - raw linen and subtle textural contrast have left many designers yawning, and there is a renewed interest in ornamentation in fabrics. This started with the advent of digital printing (which has been the biggest change in fabrics in recent years) an conversely the swing back toward the artistry behind traditional fabric, with renewed interest in hand embroidery and Hand Blocking, and thus the resurrection of Chintz and a more traditional style of decoration.

via Jean Monro

Jean Monro is a small niche fabric company still exclusively producing Chintz in the UK, and is somewhat known amongst decorators seeking a traditional style that has been discontinued elsewhere. I still think of this company as "Mrs Monro" and this is because it used to be called that back when I worked in London 17 years ago. Mrs Monro has the distinction of being the oldest Interior Design company still in operation in England - it was started in 1926. The fabric side of the business was developed in the 1980's by the original founder's daughter. This was eventually spun off  and acquired by Turnell & Gigon in 1998 and given the slight name change to distinguish it from the Interiors business. They produce stunning designs full of blowsy flowers and foliage, mostly printed in England, and almost all hand blocked onto cotton chintz or linen. Everything old is new again, and there is a definite renewed interest in chintz, and the floral prints last seen so full blown in the 1980's.

Ham Yard Hotel - the Library featuring Jean Monro Chintz

Kit Kemp used some of Jean Monro's fabrics in her latest Ham Yard hotel, and it is the subtle hand made quality of the hand blocking that really is quite beautiful. Coupled with some of the more modern colour renditions that they've produced the designs from the 1860s look thoroughly modern.

I thought I'd leave this short video from their website for your enjoyment - it's the process that a length of fabric will go through... all 18 metres of it with the hand blocking being done. One design, Lucy's Roses, has 180 blocks applied to produce the design per pattern repeat, all done by hand by a master craftsman/woman who has completed a trade apprenticeship that lasts 7 years. As it is done by hand, there is a subtle difference to the designs produced by different hand blockers. The process has never been adequately replicated by machine. Whether or not you're ready to embrace traditional Chintz in your interior, you can admire the craft and perhaps gain more of an appreciation for the work that goes into these beautiful, textured, painterly fabrics.

MASTER SHORT from Doublard Design on Vimeo.
From the Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

I've been on a bit of a kick with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's collection this year (Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII). Earlier this year I bought a secondhand copy of the Sotheby's Catalogue from the sale of their possessions at auction in 1997, and which makes for fascinating browsing. This then lead to me purchasing a secondhand copy of an out of print book "The Windsor Style" by Suzy Menkes, as it was quoted so heavily in the text of the catalogue and it intrigued me with the peculiar tidbits of information that had been dropped... and all of this was as a precursor to a date I had written in my diary at the start of the year to attend a talk held by ADFAS (Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society) given by Adrian Dickens of Circa AD Jewels on this topic last week.

Sotheby's catalogues from 1997

The Windsors were certainly the very definition of an Odd couple. Both were style icons, who have had an enduring influence on fashion (particularly the Duke, who innovated menswear to a look we currently recognise, popularising tartan trousers in the US, unusual fabric and outfit combinations of checks, plaids and tweeds, and the great coat and modern suit styles still worn by men working in professional jobs all over the world), and both devoted their lives to their appearance.

The Duke's wardrobe, photograph from the Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

In a way, they were the Pop culture icons of their time (although the twice divorced Duchess was not exactly popular with the general public), celebrated for their fashionable lives.

At their country house, the Duke in full Tartan suit, from "The Windsor Style"

They assembled an enormous collection of the finest quality jewellery, couture clothing and accessories, china, art, household linens, first edition leather bound books, furniture, bibelots and trinkets. Their lives were lived in as painfully stylish a way possible, all designed to give the impression of the royal King in exile, to reiterate a status that he no longer had. In some ways this was a millstone for the Duchess - certainly evidence suggests that she did not want to become his wife, preferring instead to be his mistress (which had a status of its own at that time amongst the aristocracy) - she listened to the abdication speech on the radio reportedly from under a blanket moaning in distress. She knew that her life's work would now be to make this sacrifice worth it to him, to ensure that the Duke still felt important, and to this end she pursued perfection in all physical facets of their lives to provide a polished image to the world and to give him the Kingly status he now lacked.

French antiques in Paris via "The Windsor Style"

They were pioneers of mixing High and Low in their lives, at a time when you didn't celebrate your abilities to do so. After their death and the dispersal of their collection, it was found that 70% of the "antique" furniture in their house in Paris was in fact reproduction, purchased from a French department store. The other 30% was real, but comprised mainly Chinese antiques and country antiques, which were inexpensive at the time, but gave an aura of authenticity to their other pieces. The small collection of very fine French furniture eventually was donated to the Louvre after the Duke's death. The replica furniture was offset by (real) Art and the ephemera taken from the Duke's short lived period as King of England, scattered around prominently. The leather bound books on the shelf, unread by them, were there for show too, and everything that could possibly be monogrammed and emblazoned with their insignia (a combination of WE for Wallis and Edward with a coronet above to denote royal status) was stamped in order to denote a royal status that Wallis was never given (she was never given the title Her Royal Highness, which rankled with the Duke, and which he felt a personal slight from his brother, the new King).

Table setting with monogrammed glasses, Royal Copenhagen assembled china service circa 1880, English silver flatware circa 1932 with monogram, and Porthault 1950's appliqued place mats and napkins via Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

The mix of high/ low continued in many facets of their lives - the Duchess was very fond of costume jewellery (as well as her very expensive Cartier pieces) and helped to popularise it during the 1950's. All of her costume Jewels were given specially made leather cases with the monogram on them too. When worn with her couture clothing, Roger Vivier shoes, and monogrammed crocodile handbags the overall effect was stylish perfection. Monograms were on her handkerchiefs (made from the finest linen) and even the bust of her hand embroidered silk and lace nightgowns. You could say the diminishing of their Royal status led to an obsession with achieving it. The Duke was known to tell people that he was one of only 3 actual blood Royals alive - that Queen Elizabeth II was only half Royal as her mother was aristocratic, but not Royal herself.

The Duke's bedroom with royal ephemera including the Order of the Garter and his royal insignia from his time as King via Sotheby's Catalogue 1997. Next to his bed he kept his childhood nursery toys, which would be packed when he travelled by his Valet.

They lived a vacuous life - they performed no charity work and made no donations, chaired no foundations, held no office or job (aside from a brief period as Governor General of the Bahamas - a role designed to get them out of the way and kept busy during WW2 when their fascist sympathies created enormous problems for the English. The Bahamas were then an unfashionable backwater far from the theatre of War). They didn't read, attend Opera or concerts or pursue any other cultural pursuits.

lined up and waiting...staff in full livery from "The Windsor Style"

Their household staff of 28 (18  indoors)  meant that they never lifted a finger in their homes, and those 28 staff were kept busy looking after the two of them by doing things such as ironing the Duchess' sheets twice a day (she could not abide wrinkled linen). "It was the only household where the water in the vases was always crystal clear" said the Baronness de Cabrol. To fill in the long days, the Windsor's lives were devoted to fittings for clothing, posing for carefully staged propaganda style photographs, going out or entertaining at home for dinner and dancing until very late at night, every night of the week, and going away on holidays or to their country house where the Duke enjoyed gardening, one of his few hobbies (Wallis did not like the country). They were both incredibly vain - Wallis could spend 9 hours choosing one hat "Her life's work was shopping" as The Duchess of Marlborough commented. Photographs were touched up in post production to erase wrinkles, and Wallis underwent a relatively unsuccessful early face lift and devoted hours to her hair and makeup routine each day.

airbrushing out the wrinkles including the "Frown that Cleaves her forehead ('as though she'd been hit by an axe' says Anne Slater)" her friend via "The Windsor Style"

So what is it about them that has meant that they are still talked about so many years later? In a way, they were the equivalent to today's reality TV stars. A dramatic family dispute and explosive scandal, and then the theatre of their life: vacuous, boring, lacking direction and industry and completely excessive - played out on a self publicised and perfectly managed stage set. The sale of their collection in 1997 has meant that they have achieved notoriety and fame through their legacy of the one thing that they devoted themselves to passionately: their appearances and their things.

The Windsor Style is definitely worth hunting down if you are interested in reading more about them - filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits on their life, their style, their influence on fashion and Interiors, and their collections. The talk I attended was an excellent overview of a strangely fascinating couple. Their contribution to society in a meaningful way never eventuated - they celebrated the surface, and perhaps, in always striving to be ahead of the times, they managed to be the icons and precursor to our modern scourge - the celebration of the individual, the celebration of style over substance.
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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on
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