Current Issue #488

A peek at Government House's power, privilege and chintz

A peek at Government House's power, privilege and chintz

As Government House prepares for its second bi-annual Open Day, a new tour aims to tell the deeper stories behind Australia’s oldest building of its kind, and those who have inhabited it.

Government House opens its doors twice a year in April and October. During this year’s October 7 open day, academic Georgina Downey is hosting the first of her art and interiors tours through our state’s historic houses. Tapping into a renewed interest in heritage issues Downey’s tour offers a scholarly approach placing it into a historical context.

“I think the interior is the final frontier of privacy. Everything is public these days on social media,” explains Downey. “You learn a lot about a person from being in these environments. They are central to our lives, they are about shelter and identity and family and nurturing.”

The tour is the first of its kind with Downey drawing on her two published books and PhD to present a tour which places the interiors into a critical, cultural and post-colonial framework and connects them to the history of South Australia.

“People are generally pretty curious and have an appetite to get in and have a sticky beak around and see how people live,” says Downey. “I specialise in making the historic interior, art and décor fun and an educational experience.”

Audiences can explore the style and taste in Government House from the colonial to the modern period, hear stories of the lives of the Governors and their families, and count the many tiny coronets everywhere, that represent the Crown and our ongoing relationship.

Our Government House is the oldest (still standing) Government House in Australia and the second oldest continuously occupied house in Adelaide.

From 1836 to today Government House has been the constant venue and setting for many historical events and gatherings in the life of the State.

Downey points out: “Government house is a working house. It’s a public house that is also a home, and when the Queen is here it’s her house. It has many roles, it’s a complex house that has to do a lot of things well.”

Audiences can explore the impressive art collection, the majority of which is on loan from the Art Gallery of South Australia. John Glover, Hans Heysen, Margaret Preston are just some of the well-known Australian artists adorning the walls. The huge life-sized portraits of William IV and Queen Adelaide belong to the house and stand in the State entrance as if in welcome.

An interesting piece to note is the William IV sofa on the west wall, near the study, made of simulated rosewood (mahogany). This is one of two sofas believed to have being brought out on HMS Buffalo with Governor Hindmarsh, our first governor.

Other items to note are the impressive chandeliers throughout the house that were made by Richardson’s of Stourbridge (English), particularly the three-tier crystal chandeliers in the ballroom (circa 1860s). The chandeliers were originally fitted for gas lighting in all the main rooms of Government House in 1866, and the gas transport pipes are made of crystal.

Downey’s tours and a visit to our heritage houses help link their interiors to South Australia’s history and will appeal to those with a love of art, architecture and design, history or just seeing the beauty in our everyday built environment.

While Downey’s tour of Government House has sold out she has more in the pipeline. For further information visit her website

The public can visit Government House on their own accord on Sunday, October 7. For further information visit their website,

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