Out of all the states in Australia, it would be hard to surpass Victoria in terms of its visual art history – particularly notable examples of architectural design.
The traditions of heritage, society and culture associated with their development of style are second to none. If stones could talk…what tales one classically inspired mansion in Victoria would tell us today.
Beleura sited down south of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula was constructed by the wealth and prosperity its owner achieved during Victoria’s Goldrush years of the 19th century.
The house is an integral part of the ‘colonial heritage of Victoria, first built in 1863-64 by James Butchart. He was a pastoralist who made his money when Australia’s wealth was being built on the sheep’s back.
The combined elegance and opulence of Beleura’s grand façade is a bold statement in style. It is a considered comment on the idea that flourished from the eighteenth to early twentieth century, that a civilised man in society could trace his ancestors back to antiquity at a time when reason and order prevailed and intellectualism was born.
The idea of a ‘compleat gentleman’ achieved finely balanced attitudes in Florence during the cultural and artistic events of 15th century Italy. It was reborn again during the eighteenth century and the Grand Tour of Europe undertaken by privileged young men.
Today Beleura has museum status, and is operated and maintained by its own Foundation, organised by the last owner John Tallis who bequeathed the house to the people of Victoria in 1996.
Just as a few other collectors and connoisseurs have done, he was seriously motivated to capture a moment in time for future visitors to learn about their heritage.
Visually Beleura is sumptuous.
John (Jack) Tallis Beleura’s last owner during his lifetime was a gentleman of means from another age. For him great houses like Beleura were originally intended as settings in which one could entertain one’s equals and, if fortunate, one’s superiors.
His life evolved around the Beleura that he cherished. He cared for it, and worried about it, with what has been described as ‘obsessive zeal’. His accumulation of wealth driven by his considered aim of sharing both its beauty and bounty with others way past his own lifetime.
Born in the final halcyon days of the Edwardian era, it was the travels that John Morton Tallis and his family embarked on that would inform the design and style choices for Beleura when it finally became Jack (John) Tallis’s home.
As an accomplished musician, Tallis wanted Beleura to be a place of educational and cultural interest, especially supporting young creative people.
Beleura is associated with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), who classified it in 1956 and declared it an historic house and garden in 1974 (No 613 in the national register),
The Tallis Foundation however has its own board of governance, who operate independently from the National Trust.
Beleura was a small brick and timber cottage at first, which was gradually developed as a summer retreat. Following its original owner James Butchart’s death it was described, when it was first offered for sale, as the finest mansion in the colony.
There is a view of Schnapper Point, which the house overlooked across Port Phillip Bay, which was a popular holiday haunt.
Painted by illustrious Austrian born colonial Australian landscape artist Eugene von Guérard, the scene is only animated by a horseman and couple gathering wood.
In the main the view at the time from Beleura’s land on the peninsula shows that it was still one of undisturbed bushland, a peaceful place well beyond city limits where solace and serenity were an aspect of everyday life.
When Butchart died Beleura became a residence for the 4th Governor of Victoria.
It was sold a number of times to different owners until Sir George and Lady Tallis and their family came along.
They had already acquired the house next door, and when Beleura was offered for sale in 1919 they added it to their growing estate holdings.
Sir George Tallis was an influential businessman in Melbourne, the major investor in the now famous Australian performance art icon J.C. Williamson Entertainment Company.
His son and its last owner John (Jack) Morton Tallis was one of four children who grew up there.
Beleura was planned to be a place where you would relax and let the world go by. You could read the newspaper following breakfast while overlooking the gardens and sea, embracing the whole sense of being ‘at home’ in a haven of peace and happiness, everyone’s dream.
The Tallis family used Beleura as a holiday retreat. They loved entertaining their theatrical friends there, including Dame Nellie Melba, who slept in the palatial guest bedroom and used a bathroom suite designed by an important Melbourne architect of the time Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865-1933).
The gardens planned were based on designs by Australian gardening legend Edna Walling and Harold Desbrowe-Annear, who worked within the house as well as adding Italian style reflective pools to the gardens.
The mixed heritage of its original planting of trees provides the original context for the garden with Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata) and Lemon Scented Gum (Corymbia citriodora) providing a backdrop for all the other planting.
Today they are mature and grand like the house they service.
Beyond the trees, a series of inner gardens unfolds around the house, flowing graciously from one to another like great open-air rooms, each very different but equally charming.
This provides a wonderful sense of theatre, which is so appropriate to the last family who lived daily with its vistas, dramas and devices, including a set of ‘ancient ruins’ as a folly, articulating the spaces.
The rose garden, which was a necessary adjunct to all houses of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, was based on Vita Sackville-West’s famous garden at Sissinghurst in Kent.
In another exotic corner oriental plants and a bridge leading over a pond means that you encounter a Japanese willow-patterned plate type of garden.
Other features include an unusual floral theatre, a lavender courtyard and a rustic Hansel and Gretel village, favourite places for a growing family to spend time.
The house itself wasn’t ever really huge.
A great deal of architectural drama was achieved by its extraordinary elongated Italianate styled villa façade, whose original architect is unknown even if scholars do like to speculate.
It recalls the moments Italian owners spent lazing in their loggia in the north of Italy, or the architecture and society of a time when young English men of privilege went to Italy on a Grand Tour in passionate pursuit of life as a compleat gentleman.
Today it remains very appealing with its mature garden complimenting its classic style.
This ‘loggia’ or front verandah, a device that is an important aspect of houses of the great Aussie building tradition, is held up by masses of Corinthian columns. They were first developed by the ancient Greeks and taken up by the Romans who appropriated their design to support their own endeavours.
Great urns surmount the entablature and the Italianate style balustrade parapet is exceedingly elaborate.
John, who was Jack in the English way of things, acquired Beleura following World War II. This is when it became contrastingly his personal idyll and equivalent to his worry beads.
He revived his parent’s original Italianate garden, imposing his own romantic view of an ‘Italian’ garden over the top with additional embellishments that accommodated his laid back entertaining bachelor louche lifestyle.
There is a tower to view the estate from, which was built in reference either to the Italian villa tradition of a dovecot in a tower attracting birds to the owner’s table, or the tall towers of the hill towns of Tuscany, that afforded a view of surrounding countryside so that you could watch out for when your ‘enemies’ were on the move.
Its interiors house an amazing collection of decorative arts and help provide the impression of a post-modern fashionable life, one that favoured what we could describe as a welcoming English country style of interior.
There is a mixture of Victorian antiques, chandeliers from Murano in Italy and expensive furniture from Myer, marvellous Melbourne’s most popular department store.
They are in turn decorated with a diverse array of ceramics, glass and other objets d’art.
Melbourne mural artist Wesley Penberthy spent five years painting mythic figures of gods and goddesses on the ceilings of the dining, drawing rooms and the imposing square-shaped vestibule.
Tallis was very unhappy with nudity, and so all the figures in his murals were clothed.
Penberthy was the first post-war rehabilitation student at the Melbourne National Gallery School and he exhibited widely after 1940 executing several industrial murals. He was awarded the prestigious Sulman Prize in 1955.
The traditions associated with elegant comfort and convenience was important to John Tallis, especially as he gradually became a recluse from society, creating and living in the style of the world he enjoyed best.
The world of technology was fast picking up speed and he was becoming gradually bewildered by the arrival of a world he didn’t understand or relate to.
The style that he adopted represented his desire for a sheltered and secure domesticity.
In the main it is comfortable and unpretentious, although with thought provoking vistas and wonderful objects to view and contemplate, all integral to the ancient Roman interior tradition.
John added the practical rooms that he required for servicing all his needs for private life and entertaining, especially in the garden.
This included a self sufficient ‘Kitchen Garden’ so much a part of English traditions and style.
It contained groves of citrus trees for fruit and hedges and apple trees espaliered to form a cordon around it and surround the vegetable garden.
The romantic garden that exists today is the one John reinvented and reinvigorated. It contains imported Italian statuary and ornament that arrived following the last trip to Italy in 1953 that Jack Tallis enjoyed.
Now renowned, Beleura house and gardens is only open on select days for especially reserved tours. It is an exceptional place to visit, a time capsule really celebrating a lifestyle that for many has long passed, or for yet others has been since reinvented.
Visitor numbers are extremely limited so you need to book well ahead. The volunteer guides ensure that once you are there it a happy experience, providing anecdotes about John Tallis and love for his dogs, or his questionable reclusive behaviour in later years.
The people of the Mornington Peninsula believe Beleura is a hidden gem that will remain a secret and today, as John Tallis would want, its house and grounds welcome the visitors who would like to visit its many splendours as ‘guests to the estate’.
This is also because it is classified by the government as a house museum and regulations say you need to arrive at a central location first and be taken to the house by bus, adding deliciously to the whole of idea of it being a secret ‘mystery tour.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
House and Garden Museum
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