Inside the Collection

Happy Wattle Day!

Hand embroidered silk valance
Collection, Powerhouse Museum

When you live in the suburbs and make long journeys along bus lanes or railway lines its hard not to notice wattle in flower at this time of year. Wattle of course is our national flower and gave us our green and gold sporting colours.

September 1st is officially National Wattle Day and this made me look up Wattle in our collection database. One lovely object is a hand embroidered silk valance made by Isabella Murray. Isabella Murray was the daughter in law of Sir Henry Parkes (often called the Father of Federation).

The valance features sprays of a ferny leafed wattle. Flowers were a popular embroidery motif with the journal ‘Castner’s Monthly and Rural Australian’ advising in November 1886 that ‘flowers must be true to nature – in fact nature must be as carefully copied as possible’. Native plants often featured and in the lead up to Australia’s Federation in 1901 wattle was increasingly common”.

Isabella was not lucky in her marriage to Sir Henry’s youngest son Varney

The family was often short of money as Varney had a chequered career as an architect, politician and businessman. Although not a distinguished architect, his practice seems to have flourished in the early 1890s, when he designed the ‘Marble Bar’ for George Adams’ hotel in Pitt St and other buildings in the city. However he was extravagant, lost money in various unsuccessful ventures and was declared bankrupt in 1895.

Varney was notorious for his extra-marital affairs. Isabella left him to live in Edinburgh in 1899 and sought a divorce three years later. This was not granted and she returned to bring up her family alone, settling in the suburb of Waverley. A resourceful, independent woman, Isabella found employment and raised her three children frugally but successfully. She lived with her daughter Mary (even after Mary’s marriage) until her death in 1927”.

It is not known at what stage of her life Isabella made this valance but it is nice to think of her sitting her parlour stitching away and I’m sure she would have enjoyed making it.

The valance is currently on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill

Lynne McNairn

4 responses to “Happy Wattle Day!

  • What a fool I feel to have forgotten Wattle Day! I do take some consolation in the fact that I was at home transplanting some natives in my backyard however.

    I have vague memories of celebrating Wattle Day in primary school. It is a truly glorious plant. I have been tenderly cultivating one in a pot over the past year but have to keep it at a friend’s house as the flowers give my father hayfever!

  • G’day,just to let you know,one hundred years of Wattle Day in 2010.
    Maybe Powerhouse could do something, could try contacting Edwin Ride of Wattle Day Assoc., he’s a museum curator or something and putting some sort of exhibition together ????
    P.S. Im the bloke that puts ’em on in the Hill.We call it Silver City Wattle Day and raise money for Red Cross.
    T.T.F.N. Wayne

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