Current Issue #477

An Incredible Collection: Touring the David Roche Foundation House

An Incredible Collection: Touring the David Roche Foundation House

David Roche not only lived in this remarkable house but decorated it according to his taste and passion for the finest of porcelains, painting and furnishings.

“Now, if you’ll look over here. This pair of armchairs (c. 1810) are attributed to Thomas Chippendale the younger. You’ve likely heard the Chippendale name? That’s right. Thomas Chippendale was a very influential 18th century English cabinet maker and interior designer. His business was continued by his son Thomas Chippendale the younger who worked in the later Neoclassical and Regency styles. A bit of political history. Notice the carved winged sphinx heads located at the termination of each arm rest? This interest of the period in things Egyptian was sparked by Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798, Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile in the same year.

“And talking of Napoleon, if you’ll look into the display case to the right of the central mirror you’ll see a very ornate flintlock pistol. This was given (one of a pair) to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 by an English sportsman and military commander, Colonel Thomas Thornton. On the visible side is inscribed the word ‘Marengo’, the site of a victorious battle fought by Napoleon against Austrian forces in 1800.

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“What’s that? Yes, this was David Roche’s bedroom so he really did go to bed with and wake up to all these extraordinary items. A feature of the Roche story is the fact that he usually sought out and acquired items with particular locations within his house in mind. So what you see here today is a tangible expression of his personal taste – not only what he admired but how he wanted them to be experienced and ‘talk’ to each other on a daily basis. Now I know you’d like to keep browsing but we’ve barely started.”

Early into a hypothetical tour it is apparent that coming to terms with the late David Roche’s Fermoy House is a campaign. People who have visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London with its ‘studies for the mind’ collection of antiquities, furnishings and pictorial art will likely be up for it. Survivors of Kremlin Armoury, Hermitage or Louvre immersions might think they are made of the right stuff.

But we are dealing here with compression on an intensive level. From the get go when tour groups watch a short video and have a cup of tea in the Roman Room overlooked by muscular neoclassical chaps (the stone variety) they will enter a corridor made magic by a green star-studded carpet, deep red walls and gold-framed pictures with a growing realisation that this is not another National Trust social history trundle.

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David Roche not only lived in this remarkable house but decorated it according to his taste and passion for the finest of porcelains, painting and furnishings. He created an interlocking sequence of aesthetic experiences to which contemporary audiences, through Roche’s generous vision and provisions, have open access.

It is one thing to read about the influence of neoclassicism on the late 18th and early 19th centuries’ design – and another to see this influence manifested through the filter of one collector’s lifelong passion. To the average visitor, the idea of conducting daily life surrounded at every turn by an antique trove might seem absolutely over-the-top, particularly if at a stage in life when IKEA-ing the family home.

But somehow this massing of amazing objects works. This has a lot to do with the consistent grammar of neoclassical design which imposes a sense of order in its symmetries and palettes despite the visual riot of gilded surfaces, gleaming silver, polished stone, voluptuous flesh, rich timber finishes and patterns from across cultures and eras. Having said that, be prepared for surprises. Case in point: David Roche’s ‘Den’ where he watched telly surrounded by paintings of hunting hounds and the like and overlooked by a wall to wall display case of Staffordshire ceramics with a pronounced bucolic thematic.

David’s other passion was dog breeding and showing at a national and international level. Commentators are already having a field day drawing analogies between Roche having an eye for a breed and a beautiful object.

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This aspect of his life is comprehensively represented in the Fermoy House experience through paintings and other sculptural and decorative items, trophies acquired at various dog shows and photographs displayed in the new (‘black envelope’) gallery adjunct to the the historic home. Yet more works – many of them larger items – from the Roche private collection of 3,000 pieces of decorative and fine art spanning two centuries of European design can be seen in this commanding contemporary space.

Senior Curator Robert Reason foresees programs for this space as not only presenting thematic sections from the collection but also showcasing new work by contemporary artists and designers. This year’s South Australian Living Artists Festival (SALA), for example, will feature work by nationally acclaimed Adelaide ceramic artist Bruce Nuske. Other art and research collaborative opportunities beckon. More can be said about this neoclassical (Karl Friedrich Schinkel inspired) building. Another time.

David Roche Foundation House Museum
241 Melbourne Street
Open from Tuesday, June 7 Visitation by guide-conducted group tours take place in both the house and the contemporary space. Tours can be booked through the David Roche Foundation House Museum site.
rochefoundation.com.au

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