Liberace with more money? David Roche Foundation: House Museum two of three

Canopic, canine, camp with a hint of kitsch –  perhaps not obvious bedfellows (read on…) but a recent trip to Adelaide’s first privately funded museum – the David Roche Foundation House Museum ­– convinced me otherwise. That’s why I love house museums; just as characters in novels are revealed through the pages of a book, a tour round someone’s house is similarly revealing; how they inhabit and arrange their space, their choice of books, furnishings, paintings, colours and collectables gives you an insight into their personality, their preferences and passions.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the late David Roche’s house in Adelaide’s Melbourne Street is the riot of colour and richness of textures; everything seemingly gilded in some way. Spanning British Regency to French Empire and Neoclassicism, the place is packed with antiques, fine and decorative art: there’s silk, damask, bronze, silver, gold, parquetry, marble, malachite, china, porcelain, polished stone, glass, crystal and more.

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David Roche was born in 1930 and started collecting antiques and valuables when he was just 17, a practice he continued until three months before his death in 2013. He came from a property owning and developing family and clearly never had to do office work to pay the bills. A photograph of him in a double-breasted suit with a red silk tie in the breast pocket suggests he was a man of refined taste – who knows perhaps he was even a bit of snob?

By all accounts he was a generous but highly private man, which makes it interesting that he bequeathed his property and wanted it to be enjoyed by the public. His 1950s Federation home is the House Museum part, and a purpose-built adjoining gallery, once kennels for his Afghan show dogs, houses more works, many of them larger items from the Roche private collection.

The place does shout camp – you only have to look inside the master bedroom – think Empire Bed and chaise longue sofa covered in leopard skin fabric, bespoke oak-garland wallpaper ordered in Britain, French silk curtains dyed to the colour of the back of a magnolia leaf, a cabinet of snuff boxes, parasol handles and Fabergé items, a George 1V mirror and a vitrine cabinet full of priceless china – Meissen, Tournai, Sevres and Worcester.  One reviewer described Roche’s collection as ‘Liberace with more money.’

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But that’s not all. There’s a canopic jar on the wall, one of many references to all things Egyptian, an interest sparked by Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition in 1798.

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The ancient Egyptians used these jars to store and preserve the organs of the deceased, one each for the stomach, intestines, lungs and liver in the belief that they would be needed in the afterlife (the heart as the seat of the soul was left inside the body).  The cultural and artistic influence of the Grand Tour, a mostly 18th century phenomena when young men of means would travel round Europe in search of the roots of western civilization, is also evident in the collection, many of the pieces in the neo-classical tradition – there’s plenty of furniture adorned with claw feet, winged creatures and sphinxes.

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Napoleon himself makes an entry – one of the display cases in the bedroom contains a flintlock pistol that was gifted to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 by an English military commander. Other aristocratic characters featuring in the collection include Catherine the Great whose portrait by Johann Baptist Lampi hangs in the Russian Room, which is rich in malachite, gilt-edged mirrors and candelabras. Then in chinoiserie bedroom there’s a French commode from around 1820, owned by the 1st Duke of Wellington.

As with many house museums, you can’t just tip up and look round. You need to book on a timed tour. Although, here, it’s an intimate experience without any cordons or ropes sectioning off the treasures.  The tour starts with tea, coffee and biscuits and a short video among the classical statues and torsos in the Roman room then continues into the hall, its deep red walls hung with the kind of framed sporting prints you’d expect to find in an English stately home, the carpet underfoot dark green and patterned with black stars, copied from a design in the White House – it’s not all inspired by classical antiquity.

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Far from it, in fact, the kitchen is surprisingly kitsch with its printed hessian walls, curtains patterned with cockerels, and the kind of clutter you might find in a car boot sale: lustreware mugs, chunky pottery, toys, mechanical money boxes, a butcher’s shop diorama – it’s more Country’s Women’s than Haute Cuisine.

Perhaps the closest we come to seeing the man behind the beautiful objects is in his den, which is modelled on an Englishman’s study with racing, hunting and canine portraits.  Roche, it turns out, was a dog lover and breeder – hence the kennels where the new gallery now stands – and a judge at Crufts and dog shows around the world.  Alongside a collection of The Kennel Club Stud Books are other canine-related books and trophies and rosettes that his dogs won in shows.

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I couldn’t help wondering if the dogs ever came into the house – the thought of wagging tails dislodging a porcelain vase from the Qing Dynasty makes me shudder.

Staffordshire dog figurines in the gallery took me back to my childhood and to my mother’s house where a pair of hearth spaniels (they were typically displayed on mantelpieces in 19th century England) still sit atop a tall boy dresser in the living room.

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Talking of home, the third house museum in my series will feature Mr Straw’s House in Nottinghamshire, England, where time has seemingly stood still since 1926. Stay tuned.

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